As US soccer heads to Honduras for World Cup qualifier, politics looms

The Honduras-USA World Cup qualifier - always a tense match - takes on added significance give US backing for recently ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya

The banner that hangs from the Metropolitan Olympic Stadium in San Pedro Sula sums up the significance of the World Cup qualifier against the US Saturday: "When we play in the qualifiers," it reads in Spanish, "we all play."

For many Hondurans, in the midst of the worst political crisis that Central America has faced in decades, the game in this northern town Saturday will be about far more than just sport. Yes, a win will bring Honduras much closer to a spot in the World Cup – a feat it has not pulled off in more than 25 years. And it would prevent the yankees from securing a spot in South Africa next year on Honduras's home field.

But in a country reeling from curfews, protests, and unprecedented vitriol, most are yearning for the match as a way to simply be on the same side, even if only briefly.

"At least during 90 minutes of the game, and if we win, you will see 7.5 million Hondurans yelling and hugging each other, regardless of what their political sense is," says Mario Gutierrez Pacheco, the publisher of the English-language newspaper Honduras This Week.

Ever since Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from the country June 28, after pushing forward with a vote to consider constitutional change, divisions have sprouted where they never were before: Hondurans in favor of the ouster against virtually the whole world, which has called for Mr. Zelaya's immediate return to office; Hondurans who support Zelaya against those who revile him. Churches, schools, neighborhoods, and even families have these divisions.

Honduras has grown tense as protesters have taken to the streets, after Zelaya returned to the country Sept. 21 and took refuge in the Brazilian Embassy. The nation is waiting anxiously to see if the Organization of American States can broker a solution to the standoff.

But Saturday, most just want to focus on a good soccer game. "This will give us a badly needed break," says Jose Reynaldo, sitting in the shadow of the Metropolitan Olympic Stadium, where he works in ground maintenance. Everywhere else, he says, even in his own home, polarized and heated views are the new norm.

If the Honduran team, ranked No. 42, beats the 11th-ranked US, it gets much closer to securing a its first World Cup place since Spain in 1982.

For many, a win against the US would have special significance this year. The rivalry is not as fierce as it is with Costa Rica or Mexico, says Mr. Gutierrez Pacheco – games that generate the same passions that emerge when the Yankees play the Red Sox.

But victory would be sweet for Hondurans all the same. They are used to finding an unwavering ally in the US and and many Honduran's suddenly find their northern neighbor on the opposite side of a political argument. Hondurans who support Zelaya's ouster have felt betrayed by the US condemnation of it as a "coup" and America's call for Zelaya's reinstatement . "The US has not taken the time to really study the situation, and that frustrates us," says Nahum Delcid, a gas attendant in San Pedro Sula. "I want us to win against the US anyway, but especially now."

There was some speculation that the game might be moved from Honduras, given the political tensions. But it will proceed as scheduled. Though soccer passions sometimes burn hotter than political ones – just look at the "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 – Mr. Gutierrez Pacheco says the country is safe and secure and expects no problems.


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