Representing your nation in international soccer is an honor and a privilege, but it can also carry a heavy burden: the hopes and dreams of millions of people. That message came through in Carlos Moreno and Gerardo Muyshondt’s excellent 2010 documentary Uno: La Historia de un Gol, which screened September 15th as part of the Kicking & Screening Soccer Film Festival.
The movie tells the story of the El Salvador national team that upset Mexico to qualify for the World Cup in 1982 – a feat that was as impressive as it was important to a nation in the midst of civil war. Soccer has a way of uniting even the bitterest of enemies behind one flag, even if it’s only for 90 minutes at a time.
Still, despite the historic qualification, Salvadorans had a complicated relationship to the players who represented them back in ’82. At the time, fans struggled to embrace the nation’s first-ever goal at a World Cup because of the team’s subsequent punishment at the hands of Hungary, who defeated El Salvador in an embarrassing 10-1 game.
The poor fan reception ignored El Salvador’s strong follow up showings against Belgium and defending champion Argentina, as well as the fact that the corrupt football association and inadequate coaching made players ill-prepared for the game. Shady dealings and insufficient support by soccer federations is not a problem that died off in the 80s or that is unique to El Salvador. A few years ago, inside sources (my dad) told me that a canceled Miami flight after national team duties forced three Honduran players to spend an extra night in the United States. No hotel was provided for the players, so they were forced to call around and wound up staying with sources close to my dad (my cousin).
While national team players deserve better than having to couch surf while representing their country abroad, this anecdote also speaks to the strong community support that players can find in any city. In the movie, one player remarked that no matter where in the world they found themselves, there were Salvadorans there cheering them on.
Current El Salvador national team member and New York Cosmos player Andrés Flores can relate to the pressure of providing an escape from what can sometimes be the harsh reality of life in his home country. Although the civil war is over, El Salvador remains plagued by violence, and gangs have turned it into one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
Sitting closer to the screen than anyone else on his native country’s independence day, Flores watched the movie of his country’s lone World Cup goal for the first time. It wasn’t just him sitting enthralled, the 34-year-old footage elicited oohs and ughs from the whole audience as things went right or wrong for El Salvador. Although he’d heard the stories before, it was a neat opportunity to see coaches and players who influenced his career tell their stories.
“I’m pretty proud of that story because that shows, I think that goal was an award for them for the fight that they had to do,” he said in a Q&A session after the screening.
Norberto Huezo, a midfielder on the ’82 World Cup team, was Flores’s coach as a young player. The film also featured commentary from his most recent national team coach, Ramón Maradiaga, who in 1982 captained Honduras in its first, and until 2010 only, World Cup appearance.
Today, El Salvador is looking to climb back up the ladder of world football and give the World Cup another go. Although they recently fell in the semifinals of CONCACAF qualifying, there’s been improvement and hope for Qatar 2022, when a widened field might give room for an extra team from the region.
Flores also took the time to speak with me about the responsibility he feels as a member of the national team.
On the pressures of representing his nation during a tough time
It’s an extra responsibility to try to be an escape for the people, so they can have fun, be united, and forget about the problems in the country. It adds an extra responsibility to the work, but at the same time it gives you hope and motivation to do things the right way to give the people what they need, which is a space where they can relax and have fun.
On El Salvador’s press conference after bribe before Canada game
It was very difficult. The problem was that the meeting that took place was with part of the group, not the whole team. The group that stayed in El Salvador took part in that meeting. Then we had a meeting between the players in Canada so that we could understand what took place and everything that had been said. That’s when we started to get ideas and strategies about what we could do to make sure we stayed out of any problems. We talked to the directors of the federation who were present and we came to the conclusion that the best thing was to publicly clear ourselves of any problems.
On the support of the Salvadoran community in NYC and elsewhere
The people of El Salvador have shown me a lot of affection and made me feel at home. Since I got here they’ve always looked out for me. I don’t know how because there aren’t many of us and the country is small, but in all places there’s a Salvadoran.
On the rough style of play in CONCACAF
Qualifying matches in CONCACAF are very difficult. They’re very strong. The matches are hard fought and end up being basically wars on the field because all the teams want to prove themselves in soccer, so they fight for their countries to try to win these matches.
On the potential of El Salvador’s National Team
In El Salvador there’s always a lot of talent and good players who could blow up. The problem is that other countries have developed their talent while we haven’t. That’s where things have gone wrong for us. I think we’ve improved for sure but we have a long way to go still.