By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
GUATEMALA CITY, Aug. 18 -- For 50 years, the story line has remained the same: Costa Rica goes to the World Cup, Guatemala does not. El Salvador advances, Guatemala fails. Honduras, Canada, even Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti, qualify for soccer's celebration while the Guatemalans stay home.
At least Nicaragua and Panama have a legitimate excuse for their World Cup absence -- they are baseball countries. But for Guatemala, where a national league has been running for almost a century and passion for soccer dominates sports conversation, a berth in the quadrennial championship has remained excruciatingly elusive.
"The people have been waiting a very long time," national team coach Ramón Maradiaga, who started three games for his native Honduras in the 1982 World Cup, said through an interpreter. "Football brings great joy to the country, but nothing could ever compare to playing in the World Cup."
For the 13th time, Guatemala is seeking passage to the tournament, which in 2010 will be staged in South Africa. Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica are heavily favored to earn CONCACAF's three automatic berths and a fourth team will face a South American opponent in a special playoff.
After breezing through the second round of qualifying in June, Guatemala finds itself in a four-nation, semifinal group that will send two teams to next year's final round. Though the schedule includes six matches -- home and away with each of the other three participants -- Wednesday night's opener against the group favorite United States at Estadio Mateo Flores will set the tone and, with victory, provide a jaded country with renewed optimism.
The Chapines, as Guatemalans call themselves, have not beaten the Americans in more than 20 years and have not scored against them in the last six meetings.
"We have a great opportunity and everyone is supporting us," said midfielder Marco Pappa, who plays for MLS's Chicago Fire. "It is crucial we get a good result. We have seen what the World Cup has meant to other countries and we want to experience it as well."
Guatemala's failures do not make sense. The population of 13.3 million almost equals that of neighboring Honduras and El Salvador combined, providing an abundant talent pool. The team has made it to the Olympics three times, most recently in 1988, and has always been in contention for the Central American championship, held every two years.
Soccer is ingrained in the culture. Children begin playing at an early age and the Guatemala City league rivalry between Municipal and Comunicaciones, which share Estadio Mateo Flores, is one of the most intense in Central America. The sports section of Prensa Libre, a tabloid-sized daily newspaper, is full of stories from around the soccer world. (There is also a baseball page chronicling the American League division race between the Mantarrayas, Medias Rojas and Yanquis.)
Nevertheless, World Cup qualifying has offered the public nothing but a series of disappointments, most notably in the last cycle when Guatemala fell two points short of a playoff slot. Instead, Trinidad and Tobago claimed fourth place behind the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica, and went on to beat Bahrain to secure its first berth.
"Because we were very close last time, everyone is hopeful that our fortunes will change," said defender Gustavo Cabrera, 28, who spent a season in MLS and is now playing in Europe. "We have a combination of experienced players and young players, and those young players have not had to suffer through the past. Everyone is determined."
Most of Guatemala's players are employed by domestic clubs, which is part of the national team's problem. With only a few stationed abroad, the squad lacks the sophistication to succeed internationally.
"The standard of the Guatemalan league is below that of international level," forward Carlos Ruíz said, "and when you play for the national team, you notice the difference."
Ruíz, 28, is an exception. He has scored 82 goals in 6 1/2 MLS seasons, tied for seventh in league history, and his 24 strikes in his 2002 debut with Los Angeles won him the scoring title. Ruíz played two more years with the Galaxy and spent three with FC Dallas before returning to Los Angeles this season as a reserve.
Others have made moves abroad, only to return to the modest domestic league. The latest group to test the international waters is Cabrera, who joined Danish club Aarhus this month; Pappa, 20, a recent addition to Chicago's midfield; and José Manuel Contreras, 22, a midfielder with Arsenal de Sarandi in Argentina's illustrious first division.
All have come back, some with more complicated routes than others, to face the United States. Cabrera said he rode a train four hours to Copenhagen, flew to Washington and then connected to Guatemala City.
The man in charge is Maradiaga, whose nickname, "El Primitivo," is rooted in his craggy complexion. To his growing legion of admirers in Guatemala, he is simply "Primi" (PRE-me).
"I am Honduran," he said, "but they make me feel like a true Guatemalan. The people come to me on the street and tell me how important it is for the country to go to the World Cup. They believe, this time, it is possible. Everyone is an optimist."