As an area that finds heroes in the military and from football, Central America has some of the most passionate rivalries in world soccer.  Alistair Cubbon looks at the early stages of the CONCACAF Champions League.

The first games began last week in the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions league.  The group stages feature four groups of four teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean who will play each other twice, home and away.  The top two teams from each group will qualify for the Championship Round and the final of the tournament will be in April next year.  As always in any knockout tournament there is a “Group of Death” and Saprissa were drawn in this year’s, otherwise known as Group C.  They meet Marathón from Honduras, Monterrey from Mexico and the Freddie Ljungberg’s old club the USA’s Seattle Sounders.

Saprissa were recently named as the CONCACAF “Team of the Century” (the 20th that is) and as such they will be hoping to build on that honour by having a good run in this year’s Liga de Campeones.  Saprissa have won the tournament 3 times and finished as runners up on 4 occasions.  In 2005 Saprissa won the Champions Cup, as it was then called, and gained entry for the first time to the FIFA Club World Cup.  They were eventually knocked out by Liverpool but equaled the best ever performance by a CONCACAF side as they finished third overall at the tournament in Japan.

Saprissa’s first game this year saw them lost 1-0 away to Monterrey, the Mexican Apertura winners.  Saprissa are the Costa Rican champions but struggled against Monterrey, who have had a solid beginning to the defence of their crown with four wins and a draw.  Saprissa need to lift themselves from a poor start to their domestic campaign.  Last season they only lost once, but have already suffered three defeats from five games this time.  Coach Roy Myers admits that this is a period of re-building for Saprissa and it may take some time to get back to their normally high standard.

El monstruo morado may be taking some time to find their feet in the early stages but they remain by far Costa Rica’s most successful team.  Last season’s Champions League campaign was a disaster by their standards as they only achieved 5 out of a possible 18 points and lost at home to a team from the US for the first time in their history.  Saprissa are almost exclusively made up of Costa Rican players, and have a mixture of young talent such as striker Josué Martinez and midfielder Brian Gúzman and seasoned veteran defenders like captain Victor Cordero and Gabriel Badilla after his return from a spell in the MLS with New England Revolution.  Cordero, now 36, has played for Saprissa all his career.  The no-nonsense defender was a member of the 2005 World Club Cup team and his experience will be important to Saprissa.  In midfield another important player is Walter Centeno, he has spent most of his career with Saprissa but had a year with AEK Athens in Greece.  During this time in Europe he showed he is not overawed by the big occasions by playing, and scoring, in away games against  Real Madrid and Roma in the UEFA Champions League.  At the age of 35 he may be past his best but remains a strong player for Saprissa.  He is often the link between Saprissa’s midfield and attack and has a powerful shot from distance.

Saprissa’s next opponents, C.D. Marathón are from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.  The fourth most successful team in Honduras, Marathón were formed in 1925 when a group of friends meeting in the store room of a shop had the idea of starting a football club.  The name Marathón originally came from the name printed on an American football that was given to them instead of the “soccer” ball they were expecting.  When the first professional championship in Honduras was formed in 1965, Marathón were one of the 10 founding members.  They have since finished as champions eight times and runners-up on eleven occasions.  Marathón are particularly interesting as they are the only club in Honduras that own their own stadium.  They recently opened the Estadio Yankel Rosenthal (named for their current president and part owner) and notched up their first victory in the new stadium this weekend with a 1-0 victory over Motague with a goal in injury time.

The standout players in their team are captain Mario Berrios, a skillful attacking midfielder, with great positional knowledge and movement and will often play in the left midfield position of an unusual 3-4-1-2 formation.  Nicolas Cardozo, a Uruguayan striker who is joint top of the Champions League scoring charts after 3 goals against Tauro and the winning goal against Seattle last week.  Midfielder Orvin Paz scored a well-taken goal against Seattle in the first game, he is normally more of a defensive midfielder but after arriving late in the box, he cut out a defender with a nice piece of control and finished well in the bottom corner to equalise the game.  Honduran international Erick Norales is a left-back with potential, he came into the national squad for their World Cup qualifying game against El Salvador and played well.  Also of interest is Milton Palacios, one of the hugely talented Palacios family that includes Tottenham Hotspur’s Wilson. Another brother Jerry left Marathón for Huangzhou Greentown this year. Three of the Palacios brothers (Jerry, Wilson and Johnny) made headlines this year by becoming the first trio of brothers to represent a nation in the World Cup.  Their younger brother Edwin was kidnapped in 2007 and although a ransom was paid, his body was later found in a remote area of Honduras.

No Honduran club side has ever managed to dominate the CONCACAF Champions League, Marathón’s biggest rivals, Olimpia of Tegucigalpa, have won twice and finished as runners-up twice.  Marathón have reached the quarter-finals in the past two seasons before they were eliminated by Puerto Rico Islanders in 2009 and Club Universidad Nacional (otherwise known as Pumas) of Mexico in 2010.  This tournament is often viewed as a distraction away from national league competitions, and as such coaches occasionally choose to rest their star players, until the later rounds at least.  As was evident when Monterrey played Saprissa last week, when Humberto Suazo and Walter Ayovi only played around 30 minutes in the second half.  Having said that, it appears that Marathón are taking this year’s tournament seriously.  They played a full-strength squad against Seattle and deserved a 2-1 victory.

In their excellent book, Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski identified Honduras as the biggest over-achieving nation, when adjusting for population size, resources and experience.  Honduras is the second poorest nation in Central America with an average income of US$1820.  The Honduran national team joined Mexico and the US in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.  They were unable to demonstrate their over-achieving on this occasion, managing two defeats and a draw, finishing bottom of a difficult group.  It is safe to say that football is of great importance to virtually every country, but in Latin America it often takes on an extra significance.  In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Soccer War, he recounts how a ill-tempered game in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador prompted a young El Salvadoran girl to commit suicide because of the insult she felt was done to her fatherland.  The animosity between the two countries had been growing for some time and the suicide and the angry football games provoked a war between the two countries that lasted four days.  Around 3000 people died and thousands more were displaced.  In a happier example of the importance of football to this nation, following the coup of 2009 the former national team manager Ramon Maradaigo said, “Soccer is pain relief, it relaxes and distracts us.  It pulls out bad feelings.”  After their qualification for the World Cup the then manager Reinaldo Rueda said, “The people were able to free their tension, embrace each other, as if finding each other again.  Hondurans recovered their nationalistic mystique, their self-esteem, motivation and their pride in their flag and their country.”

In Honduras the feelings for country and clubs run deep.  It is almost certain that when asked many fans will be able to think of some values that their club supposedly represents.  In a piece on Marathón’s website, one of the founders of Marathón Don Eloy Montes discussed, among other subjects, the symbolism of the team.  He said Marathón represents resistance, steadfastness and heroism.  It is part of the fantasy of the aficionado to transpose abstract notions onto a football team, but wouldn’t we all like to identify with the three attributes that Don Eloy chose.  In Latin America themes of political malfeasance are part of the national fabric, indeed in Honduras they suffer from “extraordinarily unequal distribution of income” and national heroes are often drawn from old military leaders and footballers.

Honduras’ second oldest club have started this Champions League campaign well but if they make it past the quarter-finals they would create some new heroes for their fans. It would be a fine way to inaugurate their new stadium.

Alistair will be writing regularly for IBWM and if you'd like to read more from him please visit Sol y Sombra.