The Bicolor Olimpica come into Group D and London 2012 confident and with the Honduran public anticipating a good showing, expectations heightened by three consecutive victories in their final three warm-up matches, and by a team which in the calendar year has lost only to Mexico, who are widely predicted to mount a strong challenge for a medal. With Spain favourites to top the group and together with Brazil most tipped to win gold, the final fixture between Japan and Honduras on 1 August will likely prove pivotal in deciding which side goes on to feature in the knockout stage.
The contrast between the forthcoming tournament and their participation in two previous games could not be starker for Honduras. At the Sydney Games in 2000, they failed to progress from the group stage, an inability to protect a lead their downfall. Twice they allowed Nigeria to draw level in the second of their three Group A matches as the Super Eagles came back from 1-0 and 3-1 deficits, and Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s 91st minute equaliser was decisive with the Super Eagles proceeding to the quarter-finals having earned just a single point more. Worse was to follow in Beijing eight years later, as Honduras exited the tournament with a lamentable record of no goals scored and no points, a performance for which Honduras legend Gilberto Yearwood met with his dismissal.
Preparations for 2012 have been radically improved accordingly, an outlay of over $500,000 allowing for two separate training camps of three- and two-week durations to be held, which were then followed by the three recent friendlies and three positive results. Scoring twice in two matches against Gabon and the United Arab Emirates while conceding just a single goal was welcome, but it is the 1-0 victory over Egypt which is of the most significance, an excellent result given Egypt had failed to score just three times in their previous twenty-four matches and particular in the context of Japan’s abject exit from the Toulon Tournament being confirmed by their 3-2 defeat to The Pharaohs on 27 May.
While thirteen of the eighteen players in the Honduran squad feature in the Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Honduras, football analyst and director of radio network Fútbol de Primera Honduras Kike Lanza says that the preparation and their greater experience compared to previous national Olympic teams should hold the Bicolor in good stead:
Honduran soccer players have more technical and tactical talent, greater emotional maturity and more experience, because even the least experienced players have played at least 20 matches in the first division of the national league.
Indeed, although Wigan Athletic full-back Maynor Figueroa will be the only name familiar to many, winger Mario Martínez, a player equally comfortable on either flank, had a spell on loan at Anderlecht, 19-year old striker Anthony Lozano is attempting to forge a way through the reserve ranks at Valencia in similar vein to Hiroshi Ibusuki at Sevilla, and three ply their trade in the US Major League, giving credence to Lanza’s theory that this squad has greater heft than previous entrants in this competition.
Critical to any potential success, Lanza adds, is meeting the direction and requirements of Luis Fernando Suárez, the manager who dictates the fortunes of both the Under-23 and senior teams:
… the players [must] fully follow the strategy of Coach Luis Fernando Suárez, who is not going to take risks in London … Suárez is going there to compete.
The Colombian, who spent most of his playing career at Atlético Nacional and with whom he was a 1989 Copa Libertadores winner, featured in defence alongside the ill-fated Andrés Escobar and the gifted Albeiro Usuriaga, a team then under the ownership of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Unfortunately for Suárez, the Libertadores success, the only time that a Colombian team has won the most prestigious of South America’s club competitions, would later be tarnished after the Uruguayan referee reported that he had been pressured by Escobar to ensure an Atlético victory, the official paying with his life a year later after a restaurant meal was laced with rat poison.
Six years after Pablo Escobar had been killed in a shootout by Colombian National Police in 1993, Suárez returned to Nacional to begin his managerial career, taking them to the Categoría Primera A title in his debut season before poor results at a number of clubs saw him exit his native country for Ecuador, first domestically and then at a national level. It was with the Ecuador national team that he scored his most significant managerial success to date, the 2006 incarnation of La Tri achieving their best World Cup result in history as they made the Round of 16, and their competition came to an end through a narrow 1-0 defeat to England, a match they would have led had Carlos Tenorio’s shot not rebounded back off the crossbar. A second managerial spell at Nacional ended in disappointment in 2009, and via a moderately successful sojourn at Peru’s Juan Aurich he was subsequently appointed to the Honduras position.
Suárez has not had the most comfortable of starts with the senior team, one point from two matches in a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying group containing Panama, Canada and Cuba denoting only mediocre fare thus far, but he has had more reward from an Under-23 group which benefits from being a very settled side. Only 24 players spent any time on the pitch across seven qualification matches, and twelve of the fifteen selected for the London competition started more than three of those games. That the side is so settled is given more credence by the fact that Suárez chose to utilise several players on the periphery of the squad for their final game with Mexico having already qualified for the Olympics with victory in the CONCACAF tournament semi-final.
There are, nonetheless, weaknesses in this team, and as Héctor Ramón Zelaya, a member of the first Honduras national team to ever qualify for a FIFA World Cup noted:
In general, the squad is consistent, but I’ve noticed some flaws in the defence. We need to strengthen the backfield to avoid a repeat of our past performances. We have to take players who are in ideal condition. Now is the time to think big.”
Despite this advice, Suárez kept faith in the existing defence and opted to use only one of his three over-age selections to bolster his capabilities in the back-line. The player making way is the unfortunate Ever Alvarado, the left-back starting four matches in qualifying but finding it counting for little as he was omitted in favour of Wigan’s Figueora, and he makes the journey to London only as an alternate. The 29-year old Latics full-back was named Players’ Player of the Year following some excellent performances at the left of a three-man defence, and if Japan manager Takashi Sekizuka were to look for flaws for his three attacking midfield players to exploit, it would likely be the defender’s comparative lack of pace. However, this would inevitably require moving Hiroshi Kiyotake into a central position and switching either Kensuke Nagai or Takashi Usami to the right flank, particularly to afford an overlapping Hiroki Sakai greater space in which to roam, and this is a variation Sekizuka appears particularly keen to avoid.
In Suárez’s 4-4-2 formation, beyond the presence of Figueroa, the key players are Johnny Leverón, the captain and central defender who began each of their games in qualification and who believes Honduras are capable of challenging for a medal at the Games; the towering Eddie Hernández in attack, his 6’5″ height difficult for many sides to combat and his partnership with Anthony Lozano vital to any progress in the absence of Roger Rojas, the youngest goalscorer in the senior team’s history, and Alfredo Mejía, who anchors the midfield and allows the more dynamic Arnold Peralta to feature as a box-to-box player. Except in the unlikely event that qualification has already been confirmed, crucial to Japan containing Honduras will be the assured presence of both Maya Yoshida and Yuhei Tokunaga in the centre of defence, in a match which the Samurai Blue should prove too strong, but for whom a lack of consistency is deeply troubling.
A possible starting line-up for Honduras is as follows: