If the Hondurans have it their way on Friday, they could spend the evening dancing on a grave.
The apprehension of n fans over the venue for the away leg of the World Cup play-off against Honduras appears well-founded: the Socceroos are walking into a stadium locals have proudly christened “La Tumba”, or “The Tomb”, thanks to its reputation as the final resting place for the ambitions of a string of visiting overseas coaches.
While the warm and welcoming people of San Pedro Sula have struggled to change negative perceptions of their city, the intimidating reputation of Estadio Olimpico is one they revel in. They go to great lengths to accommodate foreigners but proudly boast their stadium will chew up visiting teams and spit out their coaches.
The heat, humidity, passionate fans and hostile atmosphere make La Tumba one of the most difficult places to play in international football. In the short time it has been the permanent home of Honduras, four coaches have been sacked directly after defeats at the Estadio Olimpico.
The first casualty was Rene Simoes after Jamaica lost there to Honduras in 2008. Sven Goran Eriksson’s tenure with Mexico came at an abrupt end in San Pedro Sula, while Trinidad and Tobago coach Stephen Hart was twice sacked at the venue, once with Canada and another with his native country. Indirectly, they also claim responsibility for last month’s sacking of Bruce Arena from USA after Honduras eliminated the Americans by beating Mexico at the Olimpico.
It wasn’t until the qualification process for the 2010 World Cup that the venue was discussed as a primary base for the Honduran national team. At the start of that campaign, newly-appointed Colombian coach Reinaldo Rueda asked his players to choose their permanent home venue. According to Diego Paz, editor of Diez, Honduras’ daily sports newspaper, those players changed the fate of the national team.
“Most of the players are from the north side of the country. That’s where the best players are born, maybe more than half the players in the national league are from this side,” he said. “They could get a climate advantage and the players wanted to play close to their people, their family and their friends.”
A team dominated by the minorities of the north refused to play in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The football-specific Estadio Morazan in San Pedro Sula was ruled out, deemed too exclusive with its capacity of just 18,000 and potentially unsafe. The choice of Estadio Olimpico, the 40,000-seater athletics venue built for the 1997 Central American Games, was not well received by all.
Graveyard: Honduras coach Jorge Luis Pinto celebrates after Honduras’ 3-2 victory over Mexico last month, which eliminated the USA and led to the sacking of their coach, Bruce Arena.
Resting at the foot of the Sierra Merendon mountain ranges, the Estadio Olimpico sits in a natural catchment of rain and humidity. Combined with the searing tropical heat, the south of the city makes for a nightmare venue for any elite athletes. With limited shade and shelter, it wasn’t initially popular with the fans either, but that soon changed.
“People started liking it because of the results they were getting,” Paz said.
Two years later, Honduras qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years and just the second in the country’s history. A national holiday was declared on October 15, 2009, the day after they beat arch rivals El Salvador to qualify for South Africa. The party continued four years later when Honduras reached the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, making it two from two since moving to the Olimpico.
The stadium was decorated in the team’s colours, while a designer noticed the structure at the entrance formed a giant “H” and painted it blue. It was during that period of Honduran regional dominance when the heads began to roll.
“They started calling it the home of the national team and then ‘La Tumba de los tecnicos’ – ‘The Tomb of the Coaches’,” Paz said.
The success of Honduras was not measured just by World Cup appearances but also by the scalps of coaches sacked by their own federations after failures in San Pedro Sula.
Much of that had to do with the local fans. Some Hondurans say that football has given the country its deepest pain as well as its greatest joy. Considering a football game started a war with El Salvador, it is not much of an exaggeration.
But in the Estadio Olimpico the people began to feel an ownership of their national team and stadium. When it’s not used by Honduras, it’s open to the public specifically for community and youth programs. It has connected the team with its people, and in San Pedro Sula football takes an importance above nearly everything.
“Right now, we have national elections in 19 days and nobody is speaking about who is going to be the next president, they’re talking about who is qualifying for Russia 2018,” Paz said. “It makes you feel proud of what you are, what you represent – being Honduran. We want to see our five-star flag in Russia.”
The “house full” sign for the match against the Socceroos officially went up on Tuesday, yet scalpers continue to flood the streets of San Pedro Sula waving tickets at motorists. When on sale via legal outlets, the cheapest seats were sold for around $26 – a quarter of the weekly wage of the average Honduran. That price soared on the black market.
After sacrificing so much, the normally generous and hospitable Hondurans break character for 90 minutes inside the stadium.
Intimidating: Police use shields to protect Panamanian Abdiel Arroyo from missiles thrown from the stands as he leaves the field at the Estadio Olimpico.
“I’ve seen like 25 cups of beer rain down on our guys when they’re trying to take a corner. God bless the running track,” USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan told The Players’ Tribune.
“The fans could look right down into our locker room from street level. The next thing we knew, people were kicking through the windows and trying to throw stuff down at us. It was pandemonium, but I have to say, it was also a pretty great adrenaline rush.”
A lack of faith in their current coach, Jose Luis Pinto, and concerns over a rare long-haul trip to have sown doubt in the minds of many fans over Honduras’ chances of making it to Russia. But the locals’ confidence in La Tumbaand its daunting reputation is undiminished.
“It’s very difficult,” Honduras most decorated player, David Suazo, said about the play-off against . “But what I do know is that Honduras has to be respected in San Pedro Sula.”
A concrete stadium will vibrate as nearly 40,000 jump in unison. The noise of the drums, horns, whistles and chants make a wall of sound aided by a steep-tiered bowl. The Socceroos will dodge coins, lighters, and cups from their arrival to their departure. Local fans will be hanging from the fences, climbing light towers, painted, masked, waving flags, banners and even lighting fireworks. All the while, the groundsmen will be building another crypt in the tomb.
“You better watch out for your national coach, because he’s not having a good time right now,” Paz said.
For all the speculation surrounding Ange Postecoglou’s future as Socceroos coach, the Hondurans have good reason to believe that La Tumbamight well take the decision out of his hands.