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futbol

The Making of Honduras United

SAN PEDRO SULA — Most New Yorkers are at least vaguely aware of the political turmoil occurring in Honduras. A brief synopsis: Three months ago, a group of soldiers led by Roberto Micheletti ousted President Manuel Zelaya, whom they feared was aligning himself with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The international community opposed the coup, leveling sanctions that cost a reported $400 million. (In a sign of the times, the de facto government hired lobbyists to state its case.) The United States government revoked the visas of Honduran officials. Although conditions are improving — Micheletti's troops reopened the borders and airports last week — the mood remains tense as the two sides attempt to reconcile.

What most New Yorkers don't know is that on Saturday night in San Pedro Sula — the county's economic and industrial capital (as well as the center for gang violence) — Honduras's national soccer team will play the U.S. in one of the Central American squad's most important matches of the past 25 years.

More than 45,000 fans will pack Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, and the rest of the country's 8 million soccer-crazed citizens will watch as the team attempts to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Through eight of ten games during the final round of qualification, the Americans and the Hondurans sit in first and third place, respectively, of the six-team tournament, with the top-three outfits earning a spot in the world's biggest sporting event next summer. Defeat the Stars and Stripes, and Los Catrachos will at worst need a tie against lowly El Salvador in their last match next Wednesday to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982. This would be equivalent to every professional sports team in New York clinching a playoff berth for the first time in a quarter century on the same day. In other words, a massive party.

Actually, in a country desperate for distraction if not unity, it's going to be a fiesta regardless of the outcome.

"Oh, hell yeah. People are coming from everywhere," said Benji, who says he lived at 165th and Broadway in New York before moving to Central America, Thursday in San Pedro Sula. "Whether we win or we lose, it's going to be a party in the street."

Saturday night might be a celebration, but until then it's business as usual in SPS. Stores display Honduran jerseys for sale in every window and street vendors hawk team scarves and hats. (Why anyone would want a blue-and-white knit scarf, given the oppressive heat and humidity, is beyond me.) The majority of the people walking around said they barely felt the effects of the coup. While there were a couple of break-ins at local McDonald's and a nationwide curfew during the first couple of days that altered everyone's lifestyle, life has essentially returned to normal.

"If you're fighting, you can't work," Juan Pablo told me as he drove a friend and me in his taxi to watch a local youth team practice. "[Residents in San Pedro Sula] just want to work."

Still, Saturday night's match represents a chance for the 8 million citizens split among political parties to unite under the banner of a common flag.

"It's probably the best distraction," said Pablo, who divides his time between a construction job in Boston and his boyhood home of San Pedro. "For those ten hours or the whole day, we will be unified."

I met Odulio while he was standing around Parque Central — a popular pastime in a nation where official unemployment exceeds 27 percent. He underscored the importance of soccer, and specifically qualifying for the World Cup, to Honduras.

"[The game is] much bigger than what's been happening [in Tegucigalpa]," he said. "This is something everyone can unify around."

And what of Honduras's chances to defeat the visiting side? On paper, the U.S. fields a better squad, and in June they defeated Honduras 2–1 at Chicago's Toyota Park. In soccer, however, home-field advantage plays a massive role. Olímpico Metropolitano doesn't feature the bumpy Astroturf of Costa Rica's Estadio Ricardo Saprissa or the sheer intimidation of Mexico's football cathedral, Estadio Azteca, where 100,000-plus fans rise into the sky, but Reinaldo Rueda's team boasts an 8–0–0 record there during the past two years of World Cup qualifying. Dedicated supporters will turn out in mass to cheer against the Red, White, and Blue.

"They don't care about their beans and rice on Saturday," Pablo explained when asked if the difficult economic climate would keep fans away. "They will starve to see this team."

Samuel, a teenager lacing up his sneakers after training with his team, summed up the sentiment of an entire nation.

"Qualifying for the World Cup would only be the biggest thing ever," he said.

Political strife, it seems, is temporary. Success in fútbol lasts.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated the meaning of Los Catrachos. The Sports Section regrets the error.

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Photo: Getty Images