Samuel Wilson. Wilber Sánchez. Armando Collado. Juan Barrera. These may not be familiar names to most sports fans, but take note: This is your 2009 Nicaraguan national soccer team, and they’re on a mission from God.
What? Nicaragua has a national soccer team?
Yes it does. Just ask Guatemala, which was handed a resounding 2-0 defeat Jan. 29 by the Cinderella squad from Nicaragua. It was the first time Nicaragua has ever beaten Guatemala in 40-plus years.
By also drawing against El Salvador and Belize in last week’s Central American Soccer Union (UNCAF) tournament in Honduras, the Nicaraguan national team – suddenly known affectionately the “Azul y Blanco” (blue and white) as has stunned the Central American soccer world by qualifying for the first time ever for next July’s Gold Cup in the United States.
Though Nicaragua finished in fifth place behind Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador, that was good enough to qualify for the Gold Cup.
More importantly, it’s the first time that the Nicaraguan national soccer team has qualified for anything in its history.
“Thanks to the Lord, my God, we have won, because He inspired this triumph and gave us strength and confidence to believe in ourselves. Today we have changed the history of our soccer,” said a teary eyed coach Otoniel Olivas on Jan. 29, in declarations to the press following the win over Guatemala.
The team returned home to Nicaragua Jan. 30 to a hero’s welcome. Dozens of fans met the team at the airport, waving signs and cheering for the overnight stars.
The players, used to getting off the plane as unknowns, seemed thrilled with their new celebrity status, as fans mobbed them for autographs, and reporters for comment.
Two days later, the team’s star defender, Armando Collado, reportedly got phone calls from several Mexican soccer clubs that are suddenly interested in the Nicaraguan player.
For Nicaragua, a traditional baseball country, soccer has always been more of a curiosity than a passion. Nicaragua has fielded a national team for more than 40 years, but they’ve never been any good.
To be exact, FIFA – the world’s soccer authority – currently ranks Nicaragua’s team #182 in the world, nestled in between Brunei and Afghanistan.
With the spread of cable television here, soccer has become more popular among younger Nicaraguans in recent years, but not necessarily Nicaraguan soccer.
If you ask a Nicaraguan to name his or her favorite team, most will name a European club rather than a Nicaraguan team. At traffic lights in Managua, vendors sell bracelets for Real Madrid, not Real Madriz, the likesounding Nicaraguan team from the northern outpost near the Honduran border.
Before this week, the Nicaraguan national team’s greatest achievement was in 2005, when they beat a much-stronger Panamanian squad in a Gold Cup qualifier, before getting knocked out by Costa Rica. Panama, which made it to the regional tournament that year despite its embarrassing loss to Nicaragua, went all the way to the Gold Cup finals.
The Gold Cup is played among the top 12 teams of the CONCACAF, the soccer federation of the 35 nations belonging to North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Held every two years in July, it is the CONCACAF’s most important soccer tournament. Regardless of how the Azul y Blanco fairs against the stiff competition they’ll face in the Gold Cup next July, Nicaragua faces an even greater challenge of taking advantage of the enthusiasm of this moment to channel it into rebuilding a sustainable soccer program with long-term goals, says veteran sportswriter Edgard Tijerino.
“This is a very important moment for Nicaraguan soccer, but it has to be given form and stability,” Tijerino told The Nica Times this week.
Tijerino said the team is desperately underfunded, unstructured and untested.
The national squad, most of whose players come from the rosters of Nicaragua’s two top club teams, Real Estelí and Diriangen, reportedly didn’t even practice together before last week’s Central American tournament. In the one exhibition match they played last month, they lost to club team Diriangen. “Before they left for the tournament, no one thought this team was going to work. No one!” Tijerino said.
A week later, however, they’re suddenly the best team Nicaragua has ever fielded – a moment, as brief as it may be, that’s worthy of celebration.