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Direct from Guatemala

Heartbreak in Kansas City: The Stink of Elimination

There were two teams on the field at Livestrong Park. The victorious Americans, of course, but also the crushed Guatemalans. As Brent Latham writes, don't forget the latter when celebrating the former.
BY Brent Latham Posted
October 17, 2012
12:00 PM

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala—For a Guatemalan on Wednesday morning, it’s hard to complain. The birds are still chirping, four or five months of perfect weather are on their way. The sky is still blue. The same color as the stripe on the national team’s kit...

Err. Beautiful day in Guatemala or not, it’s impossible to expunge the national team’s failure from the collective consciousness. Elimination is embedded in the national psyche like an axe blade.

This Wednesday is yet another day on which it’s better to forget that we play the game. The national team has disappointed once again, like it always does.

True, to the clear-minded observer, this team did more than expected. It’s a sad reality of Guatemalan football that the country just doesn’t produce the talent that neighbors like Honduras, Costa Rica, and Mexico do.

Little was expected of coach Ever Almeida’s squad going into the semifinal round of qualifying in June. Not when the rivals were announced. Not when the Bicolor lost its first match to Jamaica—a 2-1 reverse in Kingston that wasn’t as close as the final score.

But no one could remain clear-minded when things slowly started to change. There was a tie against the mighty U.S. in which we more than held our own. Then we beat Antigua & Barbuda twice in September. And then the Jamaica game. They came to town with 18 players from leagues outside their country. We have two. And somehow we won.

Yes, we. When things are going well, the national team shifts from a hated representation of perennial failure into a collective hope that things can change.

And Almeida had us hoping. Last year our knock-kneed, Uruguayan-Paraguayan oddity somehow took the U-20s to the World Cup. He even got them to the Round of 16 there, though they lost two of three group games and ended with a minus-10 goal difference. No matter. They got the job done like no other team in the history of our nation.

If that was our first-ever World Cup at any level, why couldn’t we make it to the real deal? Things looked even more promising after Friday night’s victory over Jamaica. The whole country celebrated that win. It sure seemed like we were into the last round. All we needed was a tie.

We celebrated too soon. Maybe somehow, subconsciously, we knew what was coming. We had to celebrate something. So we celebrated for a weekend, just being close.

Tuesday, the inevitable moment of truth arrived. There was Pescadito’s early goal. But that was erased so quickly. There was hope when Antigua scored in Jamaica. But we knew deep down that we could never really count on them.

So it went the way it always does for Guatemala. Sooner or later elimination comes, whether it’s on the last day of the semifinals, or the last day of the hexagonal—like it was in 2005 when Carlos Ruiz came ever so close to carrying us to our first World Cup.

That’s the end of the line, too, for our hero Ruiz. To be honest we can’t be quite sure where the next one is going to come from. The U-20s looked promising last year. Maybe they’ll be ready to compete at this level when our national team starts on the road to Russia 2018. Who knows? That’s six years from now.

Of course there are other games to play: The Central American championship in January, hopefully a Gold Cup next summer—if we can avoid elimination at the hands of Belize or Nicaragua. It’s happened before.

Ruiz won’t be there to save us, and, most likely, neither will Almeida. Most will blame him for this elimination, citing different strategies that would have worked and better players who he didn’t call. In Guatemala we don’t even bother to put names to that age old argument—a few at least realize that there are no better players hiding under rocks—but the coach is unlikely to escape the negative swell generated by yet another failure.

So there’s a certain permanence to elimination from World Cup qualifying. A permanence that Americans, for example, couldn’t be familiar with. The tournament is still two years off, but we know that Guatemala won’t be there. Again.

It’s far too early for a football-loving nation to accept that, to massage it into the deep consciousness of everyday life and carry on with the same gusto. It’s far too much time to contemplate life without the promise of the greatest of goals for a national team, for a whole futbol loving country.

Yet for Guatemalans, there’ll be no more planning, no more debating what the coach could do, no more anticipating a big home match. In short, there will be no more dreaming, for now.

Expected or not, the end of a qualifying campaign can only be a void. This morning, that’s just what’s hovering over a whole country.

Brent Latham has lived in Guatemala for several years. He has permanent residency, children with Guatemalan passports, and can become a Guatemalan national in the near future.

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