On Sunday 27th January 2013 the final of the Copa Centroamericana was settled by a firm header from Costa Rican defender Geancarlo González. The hosts extravagant celebrations in their modern national stadium belied the fact that it’s not the most prestigious international tournament. Held every two years and featuring the seven Central American nations, the prize for the participants is obtaining one of five places at CONCACAF’s Gold Cup, held in the United States later in the calendar year. Such was the competition’s lack of esteem, beaten finalist Honduras’ domestic league had a full programme throughout, and the only European-based players called upon were those on a winter break.
For the majority of the nations, qualification for the well- attended, money-spinning Gold Cup is seen as little more than a formality. But for one, the Copa Centroamericana is a rare opportunity to participate in competitive international football matches. Nicaragua’s draw against Guatemala in the opening game of Group A was the first real challenge they’d faced for over a year. The largest country in the isthmus has only ever qualified for one major tournament and are regularly beaten by countries with a fraction of their resources and population. Arguably their most embarrassing failure came in 2008.
The first round of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the World Cup 2010 involved 3 Central American countries and an assortment of Caribbean sovereignties contesting to progress to the next of 4 stages. Tiny El Salvador and Belize both breezed past their less fancied opponents, the former 16 v 0, whilst Nicaragua fell at the first hurdle. They were defeated home and away by Netherlands Antilles, a group of small islands containing less than 200,000 people. Whilst most of the underdog’s squad were seasoned professionals playing in Europe’s lower leagues, many were making their international bow over the two legged tie. The result was hardly greeted with a great deal of surprise amongst the CONCACAF community, despite the fact that Nicaragua is surrounded by countries with Finals pedigree, such as Honduras and Costa Rica.
In 2010 my travels saw me take in the semi-finals of Honduras’ biannual championship, followed by Nicaragua’s domestic league and cup finals. The matches I witnessed in Honduras were passionate affairs watched by crowds of thousands in sizeable football grounds. Their neighbour’s league final was played in a baseball park to a handful of spectators. Throughout the 4 months I spent teaching English in Nicaragua’s disorganised capital, Managua, I tried to fathom why there was so much disparity between the region’s Seleccións (national team).
Considering Nicaragua’s size and vast natural resources I was surprised that it’s GDP per capita is one of the lowest in Latin America, only Haiti has a poorer population. In the 1970’s a devastating earthquake and a crippling civil war turned one Central America’s richest nations into its least wealthy. Since a revolution in 1979 the socialist Sandinista party has controlled the main governmental institutions, even when they haven’t officially been in power. With crippling poverty and a crumbling infrastructure, football hasn’t been high on their agenda, particularly as baseball and boxing are considered more popular sports.
Despite currently only consisting of 4 teams, the national baseball league is professional. There is an array of impressive stadiums dotted around the country’s major cities and there have been a number of Nicaraguans competing in the US Major League, including the first Latin-born player to pitch a perfect game. The nation also boasts two boxing world champions, although Alexis Argüello, the most famous of the pair and major of Managua, died under suspicious circumstances in 2009 (many believe that the government were involved in his demise).
Fútbol may not be their national sport, but the population is passionate about the game, which was particularly evident during South Africa 2010. Even though the fixtures were early in the day (some kicked off at 05:30) the capital’s bars were awash with shirt-wearing, flag-waving supporters, most of them supporting the European nations with historical roots there, Germany and Spain. There were also strong allegiances to the top EPL and La Liga sides. Travelling around the country the kids I saw playing in the street were not swinging bats, but kicking tattered footballs. There was clearly a growing enthusiasm for the sport but the authorities seemed reluctant to exploit this.
One afternoon I crossed paths with a British lad in his mid-thirties who had married a Nicaraguan girl and was employed by private schools as a football coach. Such was the lack of formal experience in the country that the FA badges he had recently studied for made him one of the most qualified coaches around. His opinion was that the meagre amount of funds that were allocated to fútbol development were ‘lost’ before they got to grassroots level, generally through corrupt politicians. In his attempts to scout future talent he’d ventured into the rural areas surrounding the capital. At one under 14’s training camp he thought he’d discovered the new Messi, as slight boy who looked no older than 8 was tackling and dribbling around players twice his size and stature. At the end of the session he offered to fund the youngster’s transport costs so he could attend a junior trial in Managua. The kid laughed at the suggestion, saying that he didn’t qualify as he was 13 and he’d have to work on the family farm that day anyway. It turned out that severe malnourishment was the reason that the teenager looked so young.
I’d seen the strongest domestic side, Real Estelí from the northwest, face Managua’s Walter Ferretti in the league and cup finals on consecutive sunny Sundays. The first was comically staged in Estelí’s baseball park, as the club was preparing their football ground for the CONCACAF Champions League. The Northern Train (El Tren del Norte) won both domestic competitions but complications with their home venue saw them disqualified from the continental tournament. This was not seen as too much of a tragedy as they haven’t once made it past the first round. Very few Nicaraguan footballers get the opportunity to play at the top level abroad, with the majority of the current Selección competing at home. The 8 team domestic league struggles to provide the new generation of enthusiastic talent with the competitive challenges they require to improve, which has created a vicious circle.
Less than a year after the Netherlands Antilles defeat the Selección participated in the 2009 Copa Centroamericana. They lost heavily to hosts Honduras, but draws against Belize and El Salvador were a step in the right direction. Uncharacteristically Nicaragua didn’t finish bottom of their group, reaching the 5th/6th place play-off against Central America’s most populous nation, Guatemala, for a spot at the Gold Cup. The Nicaraguans claimed a rare victory to qualify for their first ever major competition. Unfortunately they bowed out after a disastrous campaign in the USA, not scoring a goal, let alone claiming a point. Two years later Guatemala gained their revenge in Panama City, claiming 5th place in the Copa Centroamericana. The 2011 edition was seen as a precursor to the big prize at stake later in the year; qualification for Brazil 2014.
Drawn in a group with experienced campaigners Panama and outsiders Dominica, Nicaragua started impressively by scoring two goals of remarkable quality in the Caribbean nation’s capital, Roseau. In the key second fixture, favourites Panama arrived at Managua’s one-sided, partially-constructed national stadium in good form. Striker Luis Tejada, a veteran of the Latin leagues, stole in to head the visitors into the lead. A fortuitously sliced own goal restored parity shortly afterwards, sending the supporters housed in the lone stand into raptures. As the contest progressed the hosts looked increasingly drained, both mentally and physically. They were undone by good combination play between Panama’s experienced forward pairing, Blas Peréz turning sharply to score following Tejada’s cushioned header. Despite a late rally their hopes of progressing looked to be over. This was confirmed in Panama City a month later when Peréz and Tejada shared 5 goals between them. Commendably the Nicaraguans raised themselves in their final match and achieved the double over Dominica.
Instead of building on the improving performances, the Selección only played in 4 friendlies between November 2011 and January 2013. All those matches were against Puerto Rico, a country with no real international experience. In the same timeframe Guatemala competed 16 times, 10 of which were friendlies against a diverse range of opponents. Nicaragua’s lack of preparation resulted in a last place finish in the latest Copa Centroamericana. Belize’s 90th minute winner in the final group fixture sealed their fate and took the nation of a third of a million people to the Gold Cup for the first time.
Whenever I have asked natives why there is such a lack of care and attention paid to football, I’ve always received a similar response: a shrug of the shoulders, usually accompanied by the phrase: ‘it’s political’. There is such a lack of available public information about so many facets of Nicaraguan society that it’s almost impossible to separate fact and speculation. Leader of the Sandinista party, Daniel Ortega, was controversially re-elected to office in November 2012, having amended the constitution to allow a President to stand more than one term. In my opinion the socialist’s control of the government is the main reason for Nicaragua’s lack of progress over the past 30 years. But then again Venezuela has had a similar political set-up, and in 2011 they reached the semi-finals of the Copa America, progressing further than Brazil and Argentina. Some people are of the opinion that baseball’s influence is a major factor, although they fail to acknowledge that this is also Panama’s national sport and their Selección is miles ahead in terms of development.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Once construction on the national stadium has been completed it is anticipated that it will provide the Selección with the most modern facilities in Central America, raising the profile of the sport, and encouraging more youngsters to get involved. Inexperienced Spanish coach Enrique Llena has been tasked to manage all levels of the national side; there is hope that his emphasis on youth development will pay dividends in the future. How long both projects will take to complete is debatable. In a country where the capital’s streets have not been assigned names (they refer to addresses in relation to landmarks) and the government is heavily influenced by Caracas and Havana, progress is frustratingly slow. As with many of the Latin minnows, if one player can succeed in a high profile foreign league, the impact can really galvanise the nation’s football infrastructure. Until then Nicaragua will more than likely remain Central America’s underachievers.
For more from Dave see Barra Brava Book.