By Thomas Watt
I’m not sure whether it’s my nationality that means I have a natural predilection for giant killings, but sometimes I cannot help but root for the little guy.
Football has built its popularity over the decades on small teams overcoming the odds to topple their more illustrious opponents. In almost all areas of fandom – whether it is Roy of the Rovers style comic books, Football Management games or sensational “Super Caley Go Ballistic” headlines – there is something immensely satisfying in seeing The Little Guy win. The phrase a “David vs Goliath tie” is often used, but that is in itself a misnomer given how easily the former is said to have defeated the latter. Mismatched ties are won with grit, determination, preparation and a huge amount of luck.
With that in mind, my own favourite memory of the Copa America was Honduras defeating Brazil in the 2001 tournament; an event made all the more unlikely by the assorted handicaps that the Hondurans had to overcome.
The 2001 tournament very nearly didn’t go ahead, with violence and the threat of kidnapping in Colombia causing panic amongst the organisers. The Colombians were stripped of the tournament, only to have it reinstated almost immediately. Such was the confusion that Canada– 2001’s guest nation – and Argentina refused to travel to the tournament. Officials had just three days to find replacement teams to, quite literally, make up the numbers.El Salvador, Japan and the USA all rejected the opportunity to take part.
The two countries who agreed to involvement were Costa Rica and Honduras. However, fielding a team would prove difficult for the latter. The Copa America was taking place in mid-July, at the same time as the top four clubs in Honduras were completing their playoffs. Olimpia, Marathon, Platense and Real Espana could not release their players for the tournament, and so the Hondurans were robbed of many of their best players.
Ramon Maradiaga, the Honduran coach, was able to pull together a squad at the very last minute. They were flown out to Colombia, on the eve of their opening match, by none other than the Colombian army.
The tournament started poorly, losing 1-0 to fellow guestsCosta Rica. However, the Hondurans were surprise 2-0 winners over Bolivia, with Amado Guevara pulling the strings and scoring the goals. A group decider against Uruguay saw the Hondurans triumph 1-0, with Guevara again the goalscorer. The two invitees finished the qualifying stages in the top two places in the group.
Honduras would then face an altogether more difficult proposition in Brazil. Their newly appointed coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had been installed to help an ailing selecao through the World Cup qualifiers, and as was traditional, he was using the Copa America as a trial run for the following year’s tournament in Korea and Japan.
As if playing up to their image as the bullies of the piece, Brazilian players were photographed in the South American media looking at globes, trying to find where their tiny opponents were actually from.
The Brazil squad was far from weak, and boasted a wealth of international talent including Dida, Denilson, Emerson, Geovanni and Mario Jardel at the peak of his powers. However, Scolari had opted to leave out experienced players such as Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos, and had been denied the use of Giovanni Elber by Bayern Munich on security grounds.
Brazil started the match as anyone would expect, forcing their opponents into their own half and creating several chances to open the scoring. As the Brazilians were waiting for a seemingly inevitable goal, the Hondurans started to grow in confidence. Guevara started to find his range of passing, and Saul Martinez caused the Brazilian defence problems.
Shortly after half time, a counter attack from the Hondurans caught Brazil off guard, and Martinez somehow gave the underdogs a deserved lead. Even watching replays now, the ball takes aeons to finally cross the line. As Brazil desperately threw men forward, the Hondurans struck again in the final minute, again from Martinez. Honduras had defeated Brazil.
Not only was the defeat of the favourites greeted with a rapturous reception in Honduras, but in Argentina the country celebrated the “elimination by proxy” of their oldest rivals.
Honduras would be eliminated by the hosts in the semi finals, but defeated Uruguay on penalties in the third and fourth place playoff. Proof, if ever it were needed, that the biggest of upsets can happen even amongst the titans of the international game.