At the 2012 Olympics, Spain’s soccer team fielded several players who played for (or would soon move to) football’s biggest clubs, like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. Players like David de Gea, Juan Mata, Javi Martínez, Jordi Alba, and Isco led the roster for the London games. Alba, Martinez, and Mata had also formed part of the team that won Euro 2012.
Yet, despite Spain’s stacked team, they lost to Honduras. An early goal, physical defending mixed with some luck, and classic Honduras time-wasting earned an unexpected victory. But the result emphasized something that has – and continues to be – remarkable: Honduras drastically overachieves in international soccer.
In Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia— and Even Iraq —Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport, Simon Kuper looks at the factors that affect different countries’ performances in international competition. He ranks the countries based on performances, but measures that against population size, experience, and income. Data from 1980 to 2001 found that Honduras over-performed more at international soccer than any other country.
In that time period, Honduras had stellar results, but ultimately couldn’t turn it into consistent qualification for the Olympics (it only qualified in 2000) or the World Cup (it only qualified in 1982). Fifteen years have passed, and now Honduras has become a regular at the biggest international tournaments. The reason seems to be more stability and, for some reason, Colombian-born coaches.
The turnaround started when Cali-born Reinaldo Rueda took the reins in 2007. In his three years, he guided Honduras to its first World Cup since 1982. After leaving Honduras in 2010, Rueda went on to take Ecuador to the 2014 World Cup and win the Copa Libertadores with Atlético Nacional. Rueda’s successor, the late Mexican Juan de Dios Castillo, only held the job for five months. Another successful period then followed under another Colombian, Luis Fernando Suárez, who took Honduras to a second straight World Cup and held the unofficial title of CONCACAF manager you least want problems with.
Honduras went through a rough patch under Costa Rican manager Hernán Medford (who was quite bad at his job), and that has left them in a tough spot in the ongoing World Cup Qualification. But the improvement under current coach Jorge Luis Pinto is noticeable.
The San Gil-born manager’s run with Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup is his most impressive achievement. Just four years before, the team didn’t qualify. But under Pinto, the team beat Uruguay, Italy, and Greece – before losing to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. He’s injected life into Honduras’ World Cup Qualification since taking over in 2014. And it looks like an upcoming home game against Canada will be the deciding factor in who advances to the final round.
Unlike bigger nations with more resources, he’s doing two jobs. In addition to managing Honduras, he’s responsible for the under-23 team. You can see his fingerprints on the young squad that qualified for the Olympics by beating the United States in Colorado.
In Rio, Pinto will look to set his team up to similar to Costa Rica in Brazil in 2014. In five matches across 510 minutes, Costa Rica allowed only two goals. It’s not like the team faced scrubs. It went up against Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece, and the Netherlands. “We believe strongly in our boys, in their attitude and in their work,” Pinto said. “I expect that my team, just like Costa Rica, will be one that is tough tactically at this level and that knowledge gives us the possibility to fight. We have talent and a great tactical structure, and I think we will take advantage of that.”
To see what Pinto means, look no further than the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship. Honduras frustrated and held scoreless every opponent bar Mexico, which defeated Honduras 2-1 in group play and 2-0 in the final. The United States had one goal incorrectly ruled offside, but otherwise did little to threaten Pinto’s defense.
One other thing that the qualification game made quite clear is that Alberth Elis is really good. As in, he-should-play-somewhere-in-Europe-good, which is probably why the media has linked him to Everton and Cardiff City. The team also features Anthony “Choco” Lozano, who is starting to find the net more consistently in Spain’s second division for Tenerife, and talented midfielder Bryan Acosta.
Unfortunately, Honduras has the misfortune of being drawn into a group with Argentina and Portugal – countries that traditionally have strong youth teams. Argentina will be tough to beat with a talented roster that includes prospects like Jonathan Calleri, Giovani Lo Celso, and Ángel Correa. But neither Argentina nor Portugal feature squads heavy on international experience, and a victory for either Honduras or Algeria in the opening match will give the underdogs a chance to survive to the quarterfinals.
Honduras remains a country without an Olympic medal, but a surprise run by the soccer team is one way to change that. If Mexico can do it, why not Honduras? At a press conference, Pinto said, “I feel that here whoever has the best rotation and can change players to avoid fatigue will have an advantage, and we have the experience of having seen what Mexico did in the last Olympic Games, and that’s important.”