Honduran hell? Sounds like a picnic compared to Montevideo
Honduran horror show? Sinister goings-on in San Pedro Sula? Dirty tricks in Central America?
That doesn’t seem to be the way things are in Honduras, where, according to reports from Fairfax correspondent Dominic Bossi, the reception from the locals has been warm and friendly despite the fact that the Socceroos have been locking themselves away in their hotel to the extent that the local press has nicknamed them “hermits”.
There are places, however, where the locals are intent on intimidation, countries where soccer is more than a sport, cities where the game inflames passions.
The World Cup stokes those fires more than anything else – as those Socceroos who were involved in two tumultuous ties with Uruguay in 2001 and 2005 know all too well.
I was one of a handful of journalists who travelled to Montevideo to cover the second leg of the intercontinental play-off in November 2001.
had won the first leg at a packed MCG 1-0 through a Kevin Muscat penalty, but the Uruguayans were exultant on the flight home.
The ns managed to get seats in business class on the same flight, but several of the Uruguay players were in economy, including a handful sitting next to me. It was obvious they felt they had done the hard part of the job, and would finish the Socceroos off in Montevideo.
The arrivals hall at Carrasco Airport proved just how much thought and planning had gone into unsettling the ns.
When the players disembarked it was anticipated that there would be delays with the luggage and perhaps at passport control. That’s just how things often happen when such matches of moment are on the line, and not just in Latin America. I have seen awkward situations in the Middle East and Africa too.
What was not anticipated was the “welcoming committee” from the Uruguayans.
A large group of so-called fans turned up to provide a hot reception as the players waited for their luggage.
In reality, as was widely reported, they were thugs and heavies hired by well-heeled locals with financial and business interests in soccer, interests that would have been enhanced had Uruguay qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
So desperate were they for Uruguay to make it past that the rent-a-crowd resorted to spitting, shouting and scuffling to plant seeds of doubt in the players’ minds as they arrived defending a slender lead.
Of course the media made much of the story and it quickly escalated, almost becoming a diplomatic incident as the n personnel at the embassy in Buenos Aires (a short flight across the River Plate in Argentina) were alerted.
The players were taken aback, and it is impossible to think that they were not somehow affected, although the fact that they were hurried away into virtual incarceration in their hotel, emerging only for training sessions, probably did not help their mental state.
I wrote at the time that they were prisoners in a gilded cage, surrounded by gun-toting guards who afforded round the clock protection.
I, for one, would have felt cooped up and frustrated, as I am sure they did.
Was there any danger? It’s hard to imagine they would have been attacked, but it’s quite possible they would have been subjected to insults had they ventured far out of the hotel.
In contrast to the hostile reception for the Socceroos, I found the Uruguayans to be charming and friendly people, helpful to a fault. I spoke no Spanish, but managed, with the assistance of locals, to take a bus to Punta Del Este on the coast to watch a Uruguay training session with few problems. Still, I wasn’t wearing a Socceroos tracksuit.
The stakes are so high, some fans will do anything for their team – whether that is assembling bands and drumming loudly outside the team hotel late at night to stop them sleeping, or something more disturbing.
There are stories – not from Montevideo, it must be said – where in some places officials arrange for escorts to be sent up to player rooms, uninvited, to see if they can be tempted to tire themselves out the night before the game to give the hosts an advantage.
It’s unlikely that happens nowadays, but the story is told often enough to suggest it happened a few times in the past, at least with other teams.
The Hondurans will have to go some way to create a similarly intimidating atmosphere to that which the Socceroos faced in the Estadio Centenario in 2001.
The game kicked off at 4pm. I got to the old venue – built for the 1930 World Cup, which Uruguay hosted and won – around midday and the place was already filling steadily, most fans wearing the sky blue shirt of Los Celestes.
There were sound systems at either end of the ground, salsa music blaring, and a party atmosphere as the crowd built. By kick-off time the place was a sea of sky blue with any n fans in the ground barely visible.
The Uruguayans were, on that occasion, right to be confident. They had left their best striker, Dario Silva, behind in Montevideo to rest rather than expose him to the exertions of an arduous return trip to Melbourne.
He was said to be injured, but that was just a smokescreen. Silva equalised early in the first half to make the score 1-1 on aggregate, and the Socceroos were up against it from that point on.
Eventually their resistance crumbled when Richard Morales scored with 20 minutes to go, adding a third in stoppage time to seal a 3-0 win (a scoreline that did flatter the hosts). had poured forward to get the goal that would have made it 2-2 on aggregate and put the Socceroos through on the away goals rule, leaving themselves vulnerable to a late counter attack.
Four years later , older and wiser, faced the same challenge again.
This time, under Guus Hiddink, the team flew into Buenos Aires and stayed in five-star luxury hotel in the Argentine capital, where they were not under anything like the same scrutiny.
The atmosphere was freer and easier – even if I and a few colleagues found it difficult to get a taxi driver to go out to the San Lorenzo club’s training area unless we paid him to wait for the session to be over. Too dangerous to drive around alone in this area, he tried to explain.
And this time there was the added bonus of Diego Maradona.
At the time the team arrived, the Summit of the Americas (think of it as something akin to an Apec conference) was taking place at Mar Del Plata. George Bush was American president, and he was not the most popular figure given the US’ fractious relationships with countries in South America.
There were street demonstrations, effigies of Bush being burnt, loud, chanting marches and on the platform Maradona, taking centre stage.
Soccer and politics, soccer and business, soccer and life. Everything is closely intertwined when World Cup spots are on the line, and Honduras will be no different.