In the next week, both Honduras and El Salvador will take part in more meaningful soccer matches than the international friendly they played against one another in Washington on Saturday afternoon. But with a sea of 41,780 blue-and-white clad supporters rocking the dilapidated RFK Stadium bleachers, it was hard to tell.
In a warmup before next week’s semifinal round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup begins, Honduras defeated El Salvador, 3-0, before a raucous sellout crowd that treated it as anything but an exhibition. Fans were lined up outside the gates hours in advance, and many turned national flags into clothing, banged on drums and dueled with back-and-forth chants for their respective country.
With the history these neighboring Central American rivals share, the stakes are always high when they meet on the soccer field. In June 1969, the tensions that emerged over the course of a three-game World Cup qualifying playoff between Honduras and El Salvador helped ignite what is now known as the “Soccer War.”
More recently, Honduras beat El Salvador, 1-0, in October 2009 to secure its first World Cup berth since 1982, which also happens to be the last year El Salvador qualified for soccer’s biggest tournament.
So it was no surprise that Saturday’s friendly was that in name only, with physical challenges on the ball, four yellow cards and a red card.
“It’s a big game for both of us. The sparring is good for both teams,” Honduras Coach Luis Suarez said through an interpreter. “It was an attractive game for the fans, and especially the Honduran fans who went home happy. Both teams tried to be offensive.”
Honduras dominated the action much of the afternoon, and in the 11th minute, midfielder Emilio Izaguirre came to the forefront. After a short pass off a corner kick, Izaguirre got the ball back for a cross that went directly to forward Victor Bernandez. His ensuing header ricocheted off teammate Johnny Leveron, but when the ball landed at Bernandez’s feet, he fired a shot past El Salvador goalkeeper Benyi Villalobos to give Los Catrachos a 1-0 advantage.
Honduras went into a defensive posture from there, and with the majority Salvadoran crowd itching to cheer on their team, La Selecta awoke following its sloppy start.
Its best chance came in the 16th minute when defenseman Steve Purdy, a Bakersfield, Ca., native who plays in the MLS for the Portland Timbers, collected a loose ball in front of the net off a corner kick. But Honduran goalie Noel Valladares made a diving save, one of eight on the day.
Izaguirre then seized the momentum for good when he found forward Carlo Costly in the 51st minute with a beautiful one-touch cross. Costly headed the ball past Leveron to give Los Catrachos an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
A late counterattack in the 84th minute gave Honduras its third goal when midfielder Oscar Garcia fed forward Allan Lalin with a beautiful through ball that created a semi-breakaway. Lalin put the finishing touches on the win by firing a shot past Leveron that sent Honduran fans streaming to the exits in delight.
Afterwards, El Salvador Coach Ruben Israel said his team wore down physically from playing three games in a week, but that his main goal was to be ready for Friday’s World Cup qualifying match in Costa Rica. Honduras, meanwhile, moves on to face Panama and Canada in World Cup qualifying.