World Cup Qualifier Unites Politically Divided Honduras

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras, Oct. 9 -- Hondurans will gather by the thousands Saturday evening on the outskirts of this sweltering business hub for a display of sporting solidarity in a time of political division.

For months, allegiances have been symbolized by two colors: red for deposed president Manuel Zelaya, white for the interim government of Roberto Micheletti. But at Olympic Metropolitan Stadium, the predominant shade worn, waved and unfurled by the estimated 45,000 spectators will be blue in support of the national soccer team, which is on the threshold of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.

A victory over the United States might not formally clinch a berth in next year's tournament in South Africa -- other matches played on the same night will impact the race -- but a win would make it almost mathematically impossible for Honduras to not seal one when the six-nation group concludes round-robin play Wednesday.

Moreover, a triumph against the Americans, who are also on the brink of securing one of the region's three automatic slots, would help unite this bruised nation of almost 8 million.

"The match is more important than politics itself," said Yankel Rosenthal, chairman of Marathon, a prominent first-division soccer club based in his native San Pedro Sula. "Here, soccer is sacred. Everyone will be together, as a country."

Nonetheless, precautions are in place to guard against trouble in a highly visible forum. Ticket holders will have to pass through several layers of security ringing the grounds. and parking restrictions have been instituted.

As is custom for visits to Central America, the U.S. delegation received military escort from the airport to the team hotel, which is heavily guarded. But since the squad's arrival Thursday afternoon, there have been no visible acts of protest against U.S. policy pertaining to the Honduran crisis.

Around this city of 1 million, tucked in a valley in the northwest corner of the country near the Guatemalan border and Caribbean Sea, everyday life continues. Tensions are reportedly higher about 100 miles southeast from here in the capital, Tegucigalpa, where Zelaya has been secluded in the Brazilian Embassy since last month after sneaking back into the country.

In June, the Honduran Supreme Court ordered his ouster after he attempted to extend his constitutionally mandated term limit. In San Pedro Sula, the economic engine of the country, people seem to support the new government, though some have expressed concern about the forcible manner in which Zelaya was removed.

With that politically charged backdrop, the Honduras soccer team has taken center stage for one of the most important games since its appearance at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

"The love for Honduras is so strong," said Hazel Nixon, a San Pedro Sula native now living near Houston, who returned here this week for family reasons. Though she supports the U.S. team -- much to the chagrin of relatives -- and followed the Americans to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, she recognizes the sport's influence on her native country, saying, "Soccer is going to unite Honduras and show the world who we are."

The United States being the opponent is not lost on some political observers here. Micheletti supporters were disappointed by White House reaction to the removal of Zelaya, who is closely aligned with controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. A plan backed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that would have allowed Zelaya to remain in power until his term expired in January was rejected by the de facto government.

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