“I, Big Phil, will go down in history as the Brazil coach who lost to Honduras,” broke down Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari after Honduras had jettisoned them out of the Copa America quarterfinal in 2001. Back in Tegucigalpa, the Honduras capital, they took to the streets en masse. “This is just indescribable,” screamed Lisandro Flores, their Football Federation president.
It was the stuff of dreams because Honduras had, in the first place, not even qualified for the tournament in Colombia. Only after Argentina and Canada withdrew in the wake of kidnappings and security worries that Honduras were flown in as last-minute replacement. Brazil’s was a depleted side, without players such as Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Romario and Cafu. Proud Hondurans-and they are as proud as they are passionate about their football —will promptly point out that they too missed several key players from their domestic league’s top four clubs, who were involved in a championship play-off.
It was a different story that ten months later Big Phil’s Brazil went on to win the World Cup and Honduras lost their semifinal against Colombia in the Copa and failed to qualify for the first World Cup in Asia. But it, nonetheless, inspired an entire nation crippled with social insecurities of all kinds — especially urban crimes like carjackings, kidnappings and murders.
The meetings between the two sides have a been a different story thereafter. Brazil beat them in the both meetings after 2001, in the London Olympics by a slim margin (3-2) and in a friendly by 5-0. Unless Honduras conjure another stuff-of-dreams performance, in the pre-quarterfinals, the script should remain the same.
For, like it seemed on that 2001 night in Manizales, the contest looks like another odd mismatch of fantastical proportions — Brazil strumming smoothly like a Rolls Royce; Honduras rumbling like a battered, rusty truck. The team that has conceded 11 goals up against a team that has let in just one; a bunch brimful of nimble-footed geniuses and tricksters against at best functional (at their worst shambolic) group.
Their entire U17 team here were newborns when Hondurans celebrated the victory maniacally. Maniacally because, as coach Jose Valladares sombrely reflects, “so much filth’s happening and so little to cheer, so we don’t miss any chance to celebrate.”
That evening, he too, kept aside his chores — to supplement the meagre income from football, he was also moonlighting as a taxi driver— and joined the celebrations.
The reference brings a wistful smile on Valladares’ face but he’s not on a fancy trip. Even if momentarily intended too, it was scissored by a question that smacked of a brutal reality, which in a perverse way puts their entire campaign so far in perspective.
“Do you think you were lucky to be here after beating New Caledonia?” This time, he didn’t need the translator’s help to decipher the inference of the question. He picked the word “luck” and “New Caledonia” and assumed the question. Even before the query was completed, Valladares was winking and smiling. It didn’t seem to perturb him —grumpy, wizened coaches are easily irritated by the word fortune —rather he took it sportively.
Then, like all proud coaches worth their salt, he launched a resolute defence of his side. “Luck is when a team qualifies without winning a match, like Mexico (who qualified) with just two points. New Caledonia is not a bad team. We beat them by five goals. No team ever in a World Cup is a bad team,” he asserts. The Mexico reference might have been accidental, but no football-loving Honduran can resist taking a dig at Mexico because they believe it was a grand conspiracy that kept them out of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, after they were refereed out of their qualifier against El Salvador, with whom they soon entered in a war.
Been there, done that
Just to drill home the point that Honduras isn’t a bad team, he delivered a brief lecture on their World Cup pedigree. “We have played three junior World Cups and played in two big ones too (1982 and 2010). That’s not bad. Several teams are playing this World Cup for the first time, and we have made it to the knockouts for the second time — we had reached the quarterfinal in 2013,” he says.
He ends every sentence with the phrase Dios Gracias, which when loosely translated from Spanish means Thanks Almighty. And nothing comes between his lectures, come rain or fire. So despite the drizzle gathering impetus, Valladares was disinclined to abandon his speech, rather a monologue, out in the middle to his players. He would flap his arms like a frenzied pastor, and you’d assume, must have resorted to his favourite phrase, Dios Gracias, several times.
Someone in the sparse crowd that had gathered to see them train at the bustling Maharajas Ground jested: “He’s trying to get them acclimatise to the rain. It’s going to pour during tomorrow’s game.”
He, of course, has little sense of geography because Central American country gets more than it’s share of rain.
Brazilian coach Carlos Amadeu, too, uttered the word ‘rain’ several times. But that was more in jest that his forwards would “rain” goals against Honduras, when someone pointed out that Brazil, for all their wizardry, had netted just six goals (Honduras, in fact, have buried 7). On a more serious note, he said that he would satisfied even if his team scraps out a 1-0 draw. “A win in a knockout match, whether its 1-0 or 5-0, beautiful win,” he philosophised.
Honduras will take 1-0 too. Or so you think. Not Valladares though. He doesn’t say so in as many words. But you get it when he flatly says, “When we go to tomorrow’s match, we will think only about a win.” Provided, he specifies, “the defence can hold together.” But alas that hasn’t been the case so far.
He hopes he will wake up with a pleasant dream in the morning. It must be Amadeu admitting, “I, Carlos, will go down in history as the Brazil coach who lost to Honduras.” Dios Gracias, Valladares would sigh.
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