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Hopes pinned on a little fish

Guatemala have yet to qualify for the FIFA World Cup TM finals. Now coach Hernan Dario Gomez and goalgetter Carlos Ruiz are hoping to turn the tables – against all the odds.

If the Guatemala national team played football as well as the Central American country organized the FIFA Futsal World Championship in the year 2000, it would easily have made its debut at the FIFA World Cup TM finals by now. Although founded 88 years ago, the Guatemalan football association is still waiting for one of its teams to qualify for a FIFA competition purely on the strength of its performances.
Last year, Guatemala almost made their dream come true. It was only in the final stages of the trek to Germany that Guatemala ran out of steam and sparkle. In the end, the three regional powerhouses – the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica – alongside the surprise package from Trinidad and Tobago, flew the CONCACAF flag in Europe.
Once again, Guatemala were condemned to play the part of spectator sat a major tournament. Frustration was rife among the fans to the point that even the most loyal followers turned their backs on both domestic and international matches after the national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup. An eerie emptiness pervades the stadiums staging the matches of the top division’s ten teams this year. There are rarely more than 3,000 fans scattered around the stands – in a country of twelve million inhabitants where football is by far the most popular sport. In the opening game of the season on 14 January, top club CSD Municipal from Guatemala City – league champions since 2004 – played to all of 2,691 paying fans for their match against Suchitepequaez. And on 17 January, only 397 bothered to turn up to watch Heredia beat Mictlan 3-2.

Gomez’ stern warning
The absence of spectators and dearth of sponsors paint a bleak picture of club football in Guatemala. The clubs simply do not have enough funds to nurture young talented set up academies to build a pool of talent in the future. Experts on Guatemalan football claim that this accounts for the scarcity of young promise that would energize the senior team and help the country realize its dream of a World Cup finals debut.
Last July, the Guatemalan association senior team coach Ramon Maradiaga from Honduras with Hernan Dario Gomez from Colombia, who had led his home team to the FIFA World Cup TM in 1994 and 1998 before guiding Ecuador, somewhat surprisingly, to the 2002 tournament in Korea and Japan. Gomez is a revered figure in Latin America, capable of motivating young players while at the same demanding discipline and orderliness on the pitch.
The former professional footballer from Medellin is also renowned for his outspoken views. In February, Guatemala came third in the Central American Football Union (UNCAF) Nations Cup, thus qualifying for the CONCACAF Gold Cup to be contested by twelve teams in the USA from 6 to 24 June 2007. But Gomez was displeased with his team ?s showing and the fact that they had finished behind Costa Rica and Panama. “We’ll have to work wonders to raise our game,” he whined. “It’s going to be an uphill task because, at this level, Guatemala will never qualify for the World Cup finals.”
The coach criticized his team’s defence, the players’ ball skills, their ineffectual attacks, their lack of rhythm – in short, he delivered a devastating attack on practically every aspect of their game. Is this his way of announcing an early departure? Or is he trying to ruffle their feathers, appealing to the players’ pride and inducing them to raise their game?
During the Nations Cup, Gomez, who has a contract with the Guatemalan association until 2010, tried out a variety of new players in an obvious attempt to reshuffle his national squad. It promises to be a Herculean task, as the famous coach has already discovered to his sorrow. He bemoans the fact that there are just not enough footballers of quality in Guatemala.

Goal of the decade
Gomez looks disheartened and crestfallen. His aim – identical with that of the association and fans – of leading the national team to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa seems to be light years away and the Gold Cup in June will have far-reaching implications for Guatemala. If the team lets him down, Gomez will probably resign and Guatemala, currently 90th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, will again be forced to reinvent themselves.
Local fans have placed all their hope on Carlos Ruiz to lead the team to triumph in the Gold Cup. The 27-year-old player is the country’s most famous and, above all, punishing striker. “El pescadito” (the little fish) already boasts a tally of 34 goals in 66 international matches. Only one more goal and he will have equaled the record of Guatemala’s all-time top international goalscorer, Juan Carlos Plate.
Ruiz has been a feature in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the USA since 2002. After a three-year stint with Los Angeles Galaxy, where he netted 24 goals in his very first season and became the league’s top scorer, he joined Dallas in 2005 and has been playing for them ever since.
Seven years ago, after scoring a goal in the 2000 FIFA Futsal World Championship, Ruiz was loaned to Greek club Giannina by his club back home, CSD Municipal, but a half-hearted showing in Greece prompted the striker to turn his back on Europe after only six months. He then set his sights on the USA – and became a goalscoring sensation. His record of 74 goals in 118 MLS appearances speaks volumes.
But instead of putting Ruiz’ sharp shooting skills to the test of the Nations Cup in El Salvador last February, Gomez chose to try out some up-and-coming talent while resting his key players. These included the only three internationals playing abroad- Ruiz, himself, co-striker Dwight Pezzarossi (with second division club Numancia in Spain) and defender Pablo Melgar (with Antofagasta in Chile).
The few leading players at his disposal will probably be taking to the field again in the Gold Cup. And perhaps Ruiz will produce a similar spectacle to the one he performed in an MLS match against DC United in March last year when he flicked the ball into the goal with an overhead kick that was later rated as MLS’s goal of the decade after an online vote.