World Cup Preview: The (False) Start

Posted on February 6, 2013 12:45 am

Four years ago to the month, Costa Rica began the final round of continental qualifying for the World Cup finals in the best way possible: defeating archrivals Honduras 2-0 at the Estadio Saprissa. The game did not lend itself to assertions of superiority, as Rodrigo Kenton’s side labored to establish any momentum until a pair of Andy Furtado goals settled affairs; the ticos had waited 48 years to celebrate a World Cup victory at home over their fellow Central Americans, through, so the way it came about hardly mattered. And as the final minutes wound down, a taunt bubbled up in the ultras’ section, boiled over the entire stadium and crashed down on the heads of the vanquished Hondurans:

“¡Sueñen! ¡Sueñen, catrachos! ¡Ir al Mundial, no iba a pasar!”

(“Dream on! Dream on, catrachos! Going to the World Cup wasn’t going to happen!”)

Bora Milutinovic, a man who has coached all but one of the current Hexagonal participants, had different ideas: in spite of the early setback, he predicted that Amado Guevara and co. would be the ones joining the United States and Mexico in South Africa. Of course, if it weren’t for that Jonathan Bornstein goal, or if Alvaro Saborio had held his nerve and scored on his breakaway in Montevideo, Costa Rica would have reached their fourth World Cup finals; nonetheless, Bora accurately counseled that starting off on the wrong foot should not be considered fatal by any means.

With that in mind, we now turn to current events, as the 2013 Hexagonal (the best competition CONCACAF has to offer, without question) commences tomorrow. Here are the fixtures, with the home team listed first (all times EST).

Wednesday, February 6:

Honduras vs. USA, 4:00 p.m.
Panama vs. Costa Rica, 9:00 p.m.
Mexico vs. Jamaica, 9:30 p.m.

The Hex opener will be carried on beIN Sport in the US and Televicentro in Honduras (unfortunately, they have yet to provide a free stream). Subsequent matches, however, will be more accessible for those of you planning to watch online: the first derby in this round will be shown on beIN Sport, RPC and Repretel’s Canal 6. Lastly, Mexico’s home opener will be available on ESPN2 and Unimás (formerly Telefutura) in the US, TV Azteca and Televisa in Mexico, and possibly TV Jamaica.

We begin with what should be the easiest match to predict: Mexico have arguably the greatest home-field advantage in sports when playing at the Estadio Azteca. How great? They drop points at the Coloso de Santa Úrsula about as often as North Korea changes presidents. And while their home fixtures in the semifinal round bore greater resemblance to their struggles against Guatemala and Honduras at the 2011 Gold Cup than the gleeful romp over Costa Rica in the same competition, this current iteration of the aztecas has been marked by a steely composure and capacity to get the necessary result regardless of circumstance. A haphazardly-constructed Jamaican opponent, even one featuring some brand-new English pick-ups, appears ripe for a thrashing; one gets the feeling, though, that a businesslike, underwhelming 2-0 win would suit Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre just fine.

The other two sides starting at home, however, face much more stringent challenges. Although the Hondurans were the last team to steal three points from US soil in a World Cup qualifier (back in 2001, and not counting displaced matches), they surprisingly have only beaten Uncle Sam’s boys once in the more comfortable surroundings of the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula, and never in a competitive context. I remain convinced that their offense is prone to misfiring, the annihilation of Canada aside: they barely defeated Cuba 1-0 at home, came up empty in Panama and could only put one past Belize in last month’s Copa Centroamericana (in spite of having Jerry Bengtson, Georgie Welcome, Oscar Boniek Garcia and Mario Martinez all on the field). Then again, the absences of Landon Donovan (still pondering his future in the game) and Benny Feilhaber (not called up) leave the visitors also wondering who will provide service for the likes of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore or Herculez Gomez. I am admittedly not an avid follower of the Belgian league, so Sacha Kljestan may have become more productive than I remember him; unless the US defense suffers a similarly horrendous collapse to that of their fellow Anglo-Americans, however, I expect a low-scoring affair that could end in anyone’s favor.

It should be noted that in the last Hex, the catrachos flubbed their lines against the US, lost 2-3 at home and reached the World Cup finals anyways. The team most obligated to hunt a positive result, then, can be found at the other end of the isthmus.

MATCH OF THE ROUND


vs.

I will admit being comforted at seeing more established writers like Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated and our own John Jagou take the similar risk of picking Panama to make a debut appearance in Brazil in 16 months’ time.

Nevertheless, the facts are what they are: as history would tell it, Panama are the weak link in this Hex. They are the only country yet to taste the glory of playing in the World Cup finals, they have only reached the Hex on one other occasion, and they have yet to even win a match at this level. If Julio César Dely Valdés aims to consolidate Panama’s reputation as a regional competitor, affirm his intention to finish in the top three and eventually achieve as a coach what he could not carry out as one of his nation’s best-ever players, defending one’s home turf against a direct rival for qualification is an absolute must. Fortunately, the canaleros have already had more than enough practice in this World Cup; as the only elementary-round participant still with us, they have racked up an impressive 4-0-1 record at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, only allowing one goal along the way.

Their opponents, meanwhile, bear little resemblance to previous, more imposing generations. While Costa Rica did retain the Copa Centroamericana at home, they struggled mightily with El Salvador and failed to trouble Mexico at all in the semifinal round of qualifying. And unless Bryan Ruiz can avoid his recurrent injury troubles, the lack of on-field leadership will continue to plague their efforts at generating an attack. If the team and coach Jorge Luis Pinto have flattered to deceive, however, the fan support will be sure to give them a considerable boost: over 8,000 of their compatriots are expected to cross the border, bestowing upon the Rommel Fernandez the sort of volatile derby atmosphere that has even convinced FIFA to declare Panama-Costa Rica a high-risk match. This can’t-miss showdown will not rule anyone out of contention, but it will certainly test both sides’ ambitions of staking a claim among the continent’s finest.

While I have your attention, let me finish with some points drawn straight from the “Potpourri” category:

- If CONCACAF were to settle on regionalized pots for drawing the Gold Cup groups, their contents would be as follows, based on the latest FIFA rankings:

Pot A: Mexico, USA, Canada
Pot B: Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica
Pot C: Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba
Pot D: El Salvador, Belize, Martinique

- One may argue that the standard used to decide the Pot D teams discriminates against the “associated members” who have no FIFA ranking to speak of. That may not be the case for long: last Thursday, CONCACAF revealed that President Jeffrey Webb had met with officials from the four French overseas departments in CONCACAF (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana and St. Martin) about the possibility of full incorporation into FIFA. Importantly, two French Football Federation (FFF) officials also took part, expressing their “willingness to assist with the process.” With France’s blessing secured, we must now seriously consider an expansion of CONCACAF’s full membership to 39, leaving Sint-Maarten as the only remaining associate (although the constituent country within the Dutch kingdom has also expressed a desire to join FIFA).

What does that mean for those of us in North and Central America? Practically nothing, unless you were hoping to see Thierry Henry finally represent one of his parents’ stomping grounds in the 2015 Gold Cup: the Caribbean Football Union already holds the overwhelming majority in the CONCACAF General Assembly, and the introduction of the remaining Francophone sides in World Cup qualifying would be unlikely to change the dynamics of the semifinal round or the Hexagonal. The US Virgin Islands, St. Lucia and Dominica, on the other hand, should be sweating bullets: unless the World Cup qualifying format is significantly altered for 2018, the bottom-feeders in the last elementary round will now have to struggle with strong, disciplined, French-trained opposition just to survive the initial playoffs.

- Last, a trivia question: which country has had the most representatives in the Club World Cup (based on number of distinct clubs, not appearances)? The answer will be revealed on Thursday…if no one gets it here first, of course.

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