Thursday, Jun. 03, 2010

Can the World Cup Save Honduras?

Before the final match of the 1938 World Cup, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini offered his nation's team a few words of encouragement: "Win, or die." Italy won.

While Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa took a softer approach when sending off his team last month, he didn't have to remind the players of the stakes in their country's first World Cup appearance since the team's debut in 1982. The Honduran players are acutely aware of the weight of national expectations that will be on their shoulders when they take the field in South Africa later this month: the wounds of last year's military coup in Honduras have yet to heal, and the World Cup campaign may be the best hope on offer of pulling together this radically polarized nation.

Coach Reinaldo Rueda insists that his underdog team feels no pressure, but he may simply be trying to lower expectations in a country where traditional fútbol passions are rendered even more volatile by recent political events. "We go to extremes in this country. That's the danger here; there's no middle ground," says former national team coach José "Chelato" de la Paz Herrera, who led Honduras in 1982. While the elation of winning a match or two in South Africa could help unite Honduras, an embarrassing three-and-out performance would have the opposite effect, de la Paz Herrera warns. "If things don't go well and the results don't turn out like people hope, it's going to be dangerous. It would be a great blow to the spirit of Honduras."

On the other hand, if "los Catrachos" — as the Honduran team is fondly known — give fans reason to cheer, it could help ease tensions back home and encourage folks to start believing in their country again. "The great unifier in this country right now is the national soccer team," says de la Paz Herrera. "And if they make it to the second round, I think they are going to help fix a lot of problems here." Though they're considered the dark horse of Group H, los Catrachos could advance to the second round if they sting Chile in their June 16 opener, prevent a blowout against Spain and tie Switzerland, according to de la Paz Herrera's calculations.

While the long-term healing powers of soccer are limited, it shouldn't be discounted as a short-term fix. Former President Rafael Callejas, who heads the Honduran Soccer Federation, says "nothing unifies the country more than soccer." Still, he hedges his enthusiasm by saying the World Cup is not a panacea for Honduras' myriad problems, and his countrymen shouldn't expect a Hollywood Invictus-style ending.

Still, the country is hopeful. Tourism boosters are excited about the possibility of engaging in positive soccer diplomacy. The team's performance on the world's greatest sporting stage will allow the country to project an image of teamwork and fair play, and hopefully undo some of p.r. damage caused by last year's unsportsmanlike putsch, which drew a red card from the international community. "Honduras is ready to score its goals and show the world the type of country we really are," enthuses Tourism Minister Nelly Jerez. "And it will be a goal for tourism!"

Even the members of the left-wing resistance are getting football fever. "Yes, we are going to support the team, especially the men in the resistance. It would be a lie if I said we were not," says feminist activist and opposition organizer Gilda Velasquez. However, she warns, soccer is an "unhealthy distraction" — an "opiate used by the media to keep the country happily asleep." Mindful of the soporific peril, she adds, "The most we'll do is watch the game for 90 minutes, but we won't watch the ads."

The biggest test of loyalty, however, could come on June 28 — the anniversary of the coup and also the date of los Catrachos' potential showdown with Brazil if the two teams makes the second round of the tournament. Brazil supported the government overthrown in the coup and refuses to recognize the Lobo government. While the resistance movement is planning a massive nationwide march for June 28, attendance could be low if the event coincides with a soccer match that will prompt many opposition supporters to don their Honduran jerseys rather than their Che T-shirts.

Opposition activists are confident, however, that the World Cup won't spoil their plans. They say last year's military coup, although not the first in Honduras' troubled history, has sparked an unprecedented social awakening in this traditionally conservative country. Organizer Velasquez claims many of the players on the soccer team were against the coup but are waiting until after the World Cup to speak out publicly in support of a constitutional convention — the battle cry of ousted former President Manuel Zelaya.

Velasquez says she's thankful the "distraction of the World Cup" will last only one month. But in the event that Honduras does well, she says, credit should be given where it's due: to Zelaya. "Lobo has only been in office for five months," she says, "but the national team got to where they are because President Zelaya supported them directly, like no other President before. And the government of the coup can't take credit for what Zelaya did."