High farce in the midst of the projected hosting of a major international football tournament wasn’t an entirely new concept for the Colombian FA in late June 2001. Just over a decade and a half earlier the Mexico 86 World Cup was a shimmering carnival of football, but one that was originally scheduled to have taken place in Colombia.
While Colombia 86 fell by the wayside due to severe economic shortfalls, their hosting of the 2001 Copa América came under threat of closure due to widespread violence in the country. With safety of the participating nations that were expected to congregate for the tournament uppermost in CONMEBOL high office thoughts, the 2001 Copa América was cancelled just 11 days before the first ball was due to be kicked in anger.
Venezuela stepped forward with an offer to host the tournament, but with just a week and a half to prepare it was deemed too short notice by CONMEBOL. The 2001 Copa América was dramatically postponed until the following year. However, as the realities of re-arranging a Copa América to take place during the World Cup year of 2002 began to set in, CONMEBOL had yet another rethink.
With a flurry of assurances from the Colombian FA over extra security for all the competing nations, the 2001 Copa América would be allowed to take place after all. The overturning of the cancellation of the tournament came just six days before the big kick-off.
With the reinstating of the tournament came more headaches. Argentina claimed their players had been on the receiving end of death threats. Subsequently the AFA announced that they wouldn’t be sending a team to Colombia. Argentina was flying high at the top of CONMEBOL qualification for the World Cup and at the time they were comfortably the best team on the continent.
It was a massive blow to a tournament that was already set to suffer a denting of its prestige due to the high number of weakened squads being sent by nations that were prioritising the crucial World Cup qualifiers that lay ahead. Argentina’s withdrawal from the tournament was also a sizeable diplomatic snub. Invitees Canada pulled out of the tournament too, as the previous year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup winners had disbanded their squad. By the time the tournament was re-instated Canada had released their players back to their clubs.
Colombia had to find two new competitors and find them quickly. Costa Rica answered the call without much hesitation. Having competed at the 1997 Copa América they would easily blend into the tournament. The 12th and final competing nation was a bigger concern and, with time fast running out, it was Honduras that eventually agreed to literally and, in all expectations, to figuratively make up the numbers arriving on the very day of their opening game, entering the country and the tournament via a military plane courtesy of the Colombian Air Force, just in time to face Costa Rica at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot, situated in Colombia’s second biggest city, Medellín.
Honduras went into the tournament in erratic form and short of a number of their best players. The top four Honduran football clubs were involved in their end of season championship play-offs. Milton Núñez and the metronomic goal-scorer Carlos Pavón were both absent along with a host of other regulars.
Coach Ramón Maradiaga had his work cut out to round-up a full squad of 22 players to board the plane for Colombia. Just five members of the Honduras squad for the Copa América had been in the squad for the 2000 Gold Cup. Honduras’s involvement in Colombia was expected to be short-lived. Even with a full strength squad they had contrived to fail to qualify for the 2002 Gold Cup, while they’d failed to reach the hexagonal final qualifying group during their bid to reach the 1998 World Cup finals.
It was all a far cry from Honduras’ golden era during the early 1980s, when they won the 1981 Gold Cup and qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, a tournament where they more than held their own, holding not just Billy Bingham’s Northern Ireland to a draw but also the host nation. They only went out of that particular tournament after a narrow defeat to Yugoslavia in the last group game. Honduras’ fortunes, however, dipped dramatically from the middle of the decade onwards.
The opening game of the Copa América against Costa Rica in Medellín came just 12 days after the two nations had clashed in Tegucigalpa, during the qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. Costa Rica’s 3-2 victory in that game had left Honduras with an uphill struggle to reach the finals in South Korea and Japan.
In Medellín, with both sides having markedly changed personnel out on the pitch, Costa Rica again edged the win, this time with a 1-0 scoreline. To land in Colombia on the day of the game with a makeshift squad, yet still be a competitive opponent for Costa Rica was a minor miracle in itself.
The spirited performance against Costa Rica still didn’t hide the fact that their Copa América experience was in danger of ending almost as soon as it had begun. With Uruguay lying in wait for Honduras in the final game of their group, it meant that the pivotal second game against Bolivia was a make or break issue. After a goalless first half, the group and the tournament itself burst into life for Honduras as two goals from Amado Guevara settled the game, the second thanks to some calamitous goalkeeping from Bolivia’s Carlos Erwin Arias. Honduras were in business.
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When Los Catrachos walked out to face Uruguay in the final group match their expected role was to be a pawn in a battle between Uruguay and Costa Rica, who were locked together at the top of the group on level points and goal difference. While Costa Rica faced Bolivia, Uruguay went up against Honduras; whichever side won by the biggest margin would win the group and avoid an encounter with Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Playing some beautiful football with Paulo Wanchope netting his third and fourth goals of the tournament so far, Costa Rica ran out 4-0 winners against Bolivia. It was a scoreline that Uruguay were unlikely to match. While Uruguay had the tightest defence in South America they habitually struggled for goals.
With split kick-off times for the two games, Uruguay went into action knowing the top of the group was realistically out of reach, while a defeat would still be enough for them to progress as one of the two best third placed sides. In fact the contrived manner of the tournament format meant a loss to Honduras was now Uruguay’s best route to avoiding Brazil in the quarter-finals.
While Uruguay didn’t roll over for Honduras, it was a game where they never hit the high gears and were guilty of underestimating their opponents. When Honduras hit the post mid-way through the second half Uruguay still didn’t heed the warning. With four minutes remaining Guevara was again the hero as he plundered the winning goal that clinched Honduras second place in the group and the quarter-final date with Brazil.
Having played their three group games in Medellín, Honduras now travelled to Manizales to face the mighty Brazilians. Despite Brazil omitting several of their biggest names it was still a very talented squad. Marcos, Roque Júnior, Denílson and Juninho Paulista would all go on to play an active role in the 2002 World Cup final, while Dida, Belletti and Júnior would be medal-winning squad members.
It was a Brazil squad that could also call on the services of Luisão, Cris, Juan, Emerson, Juninho Pernambucano, Ewerthon and Jardel. The ‘extras’ of the Brazilian national football team would have commanded starring roles for most other nations. It was far from being an insignificant squad of players at Luiz Felipe Scolari’s disposal.
With the end of the Copa América adventure for Honduras a perceived certainty, what instead unfolded in Manizales was the biggest upset in the tournament’s history. Brazil were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition, beaten not in a fortuitous manner but deservedly defeated, by what Scolari was big enough to admit were the better team. Honduras ran out 2-0 winners, even having a further perfectly legitimate goal disallowed.
Saúl Martínez was the hero as he scored the second goal deep into injury time on the counter-attack, with a desperate Brazil ploughing forward in search of an equaliser that just would not come. Martínez also played a big part in the opening goal when it was his glancing header that came back off Marcos’s right hand post, only for the ball to strike the unfortunate Belletti and roll agonisingly over the line.
A stunned Scolari, who’d only had the job as Brazil’s coach for a month and had been forced to watch the game from the stands after being sent from the bench in their previous game against Paraguay, was left in no uncertain terms about the magnitude of the shock and his then ignominious position in the Brazilian football history books, when he declared after the game: “I, Big Phil, will go down in history as the Brazil coach who lost to Honduras. It’s horrible but Honduras played better than us and deserved to win.”
Honduras remained in Manizales for the semi-final against hosts Colombia. It was a game where Honduras were largely overrun and trailed from the sixth minute thanks to a wonderful strike from Gerardo Bedoya. Despite chasing Colombian shadows the second goal for the hosts didn’t arrive until after the hour mark, with Honduras managing to hit the Colombian crossbar while the score was still 1-0. It was a bridge too far for Honduras against an effervescent and enthused host nation that had the scent of its very first major honour at senior level drifting towards them on the breeze.
There would, however, be one last party for Honduras at the 2001 Copa América. They moved on to Bogota for the third place play-off where they once again faced Uruguay. In front of a capacity attendance at the Estadio El Campín, the vast majority of which were backing Honduras, both teams threw everything at a spectacular end-to-end game that finished 2-2. Honduras clinched third place by winning the resultant penalty shoot-out 5-4, with Júnior Izaguirre scoring the decisive penalty to go with the goal he scored in regular time.
Having walked into the tournament beyond the eleventh hour, Honduras proceeded to take it by storm, winning the hearts of the Colombian nation that had turned to them as a last resort after Argentina pulled out. It turned out to be a chrysalis moment for Honduran football, having spent a decade and a half sinking further and further into decline.
The 2001 Copa América proved to be the springboard that would eventually lead Honduras all the way back to the World Cup finals of 2010 and 2014, also reaching the semi-finals of the Gold Cup four times over the course of the last five tournaments played. Four members of their 2014 World Cup squad played their club football in the Premier League, while others could be found at outposts in Belgium, China, Costa Rica, Scotland and the United States as more and more Honduran players draw the attention of clubs across the planet.
Honduras had never before competed at a Copa América when they ventured into the 2001 tournament. Despite their achievements they haven’t received an invite to return since. The 2015 Copa América took place in Chile last summer, with Mexico and Jamaica the nations invited, and they failed again to find a place in the Centenario tournament in 2016.
Honduras might yet make a return to the Copa América; in many ways it would complete the turn of the wheel since the 2001 tournament. It would be very Honduran of them to take it by storm.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74