Even before side issues are taken into account, the contrast between the Spanish and Salvadoran national soccer teams is as striking as any in soccer today.
Spain has reached unparalleled global heights over six years with an innovative style and a cast employed by the sport’s leading clubs. It will arrive in Brazil on Monday seeking to become the first repeat World Cup champion in 52 years and extend its streak of major international trophies to four.
A small, poor country that has fallen behind Central American rivals, El Salvador has not qualified for the World Cup since 1982 and sends few players to leagues beyond its borders.
Salvadoran problems deepened last year when a match-fixing scandal resulted in lifetime bans to 14 players and sanctions against six others.
In his second match in charge, Coach Albert Roca will guide the squad against Spain in a friendly Saturday afternoon at FedEx Field — the first game of a doubleheader that will also feature D.C. United against the Columbus Crew in an MLS regular season match. A crowd of about 60,000 is expected.
While Spain stands at the pinnacle of soccer, El Salvador is climbing from its depths.
Roca, a Spaniard hired by the Salvadoran soccer federation last month, said the program has begun to “wash the bad image that has transpired in the last year and bring back happiness to the Salvadoran fans who support the national team.”
Before the opening whistle even sounds, the outcome of Saturday’s game is hardly in doubt. But for El Salvador, the priority is getting back on its feet. It took the first steps Wednesday in suburban Dallas with an admirable performance, a 2-1 defeat to World Cup-bound Ivory Coast.
The margin is not important to Spain either. Six days ahead of its group opener against the Netherlands — a rematch of the 2010 final in Johannesburg — Coach Vicente del Bosque needs to test the fitness of potential starters Diego Costa and Xabi Alonso and provide quality time for several others.
“We want to impose our game but need to be cautious because the opponent will want to attack us,” he said. “The most important thing for us is that the 23 players are peaking at the right time for the World Cup.”
While most of Spain’s squad comes from La Liga titans Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, El Salvador’s affiliations are with the domestic circuit, the U.S. second and third divisions, Hungary, Guatemala and Mexico’s second tier. Midfielder Richard Menjivar and goalkeeper Derby Carrillo are Salvadoran Americans from Los Angeles. Midfielder Arturo Alvarez, a Houston native, played in MLS for years and served on U.S. youth national teams.
With a limited player pool further depleted by the suspensions, Roca is searching for others with Salvadoran heritage ahead of this fall’s Copa Centroamericana in September. Among the targets is midfielder Junior Flores, 18, a former Manassas Park High School star who signed with German giant Borussia Dortmund. He has played for U.S. youth national teams and appears committed to the American program.
“Our players are young and they are used to seeing the Spanish players on TV in the Champions League and the World Cup,” Roca said, “but they want to show the world they are talented.”
Washington is a natural playing venue for El Salvador, which typically draws large crowds from the expatriate community for annual friendlies at RFK Stadium. While Spain is the star attraction Saturday, the blue-and-white Salvadoran flag will color the landscape.
As recently as last summer, the Salvadoran program was in a good place, advancing to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship. But trouble was brewing. In August, the Salvadoran federation suspended 22 players for suspicion of influencing the outcome of several matches, including games against United and the U.S. national team.
By the fall, several prominent players had received lifetime bans extending around the world. Forward Rodolfo Zelaya, El Salvador’s most promising player, received a year-long suspension. Eliseo Quintanilla, a former United midfielder, accepted a six-month penalty. Some of the banned players are now scattered around the United States competing in amateur leagues.
Spain’s players do not know much about the Salvadorans but will not dismiss them either.
“We always respect our opponent, whoever the opponent may be,” said Atletico Madrid forward David Villa, Spain’s all-time leading scorer who this week signed with New York City FC, a 2015 MLS expansion team. “We are a professional team and we conduct ourselves at all times as professionals. We don’t minimize the opponent for any reason.”
With its flight to Brazil departing Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on Sunday, Spain is more concerned about itself than any opponent. The two-time defending European champions will join Brazil, Germany and Argentina as the World Cup favorites.
“Over the last six years, it’s not easy to achieve what we achieved,” Alonso said. “We don’t think it might be the end. The World Cup is a great chance to achieve something without precedence in football history. Probably for a few players, it could be their last chance to play in the World Cup. Hopefully we will do as well as in the last one. We know it’s not an easy task, but we are up for that.”