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When Honduras Created History And Shocked The Copa America To Its Core

Image courtesy: OnceNoticias
Image courtesy: OnceNoticias

In 2001 Honduras made their first - and so far only - Copa América appearance.

Though fleeting, the Central American state certainly provided one of the most memorable campaigns in recent memory.

Since 1993, the world’s oldest international continental football competition has invited additional participants outside of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) to add to their original ten member associations; aside from the 2016 Copa América Centenario, two a year.

Mexico, Costa Rica, and the United States have been the most regular invitees in the competition, all members of the CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) with ten, five, and four events to their name, respectively.

In 2019, Qatar and Japan, the most recent Asian Cup finalists and part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will partake in the Copa América, due to take place in Brazil for the fifth time. Though it’s Japan’s second appearance in the tournament after a 20-year-hiatus, both countries can hope to take heart from Honduras’ remarkable David versus Goliath narrative that took place in 2001.

Ahead of the first post-millennium competition, the 14-time champions Argentina pulled out of the Copa less than a week before it was due to commence, reportedly due to safety reasons within the host country of Colombia.

On Wednesday 11 June 2001 - the day the tournament started - the head of Honduras Football Federation Lizandro Flores announced that his country would be the replacement. The following day, CONCACAF nation Honduras flew out to Medellín to be promptly drafted into Group C.

The minnows started as well as expected, losing their opener on July 13 to Costa Rica, through a single Paulo Wanchope header bouncing down and up powerfully into the back of the net.

From there, however,  Honduras were on the ascendancy, producing wins over Bolivia and - remarkably - Copa America specialists Uruguay, to finish second in the group.

Honduras were into the quarter-finals, where they faced the daunting prospect of behemoths Brazil. Though Cafu, Roberto Carlos, and Romario were absent, Brazil were facing a nation that had just 580 registered professional footballers. Brazil had 25,000.

By the interval at the Palogrande Stadium in Manizales, the game was goalless.

The second-half however provided perhaps still the biggest upset in the history of the 103-year-old competition.

Honduras forward Saul Martinez’ finest hour (or 45 minutes) began just after the resumption, the striker attempted to head home over the stretching, diving goalkeeper Marcos only to see the ball bounce of the post. Unfortunate Brazil right-back Juliano Belletti was there however to unwittingly tap home and provide Honduras the lead. Martinez would go on to gift-wrap the famous victory over the the Canarinho with an extra-time strike.

Just a year before Brazil would claim their fifth World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, the then-Copa America holders slumped to a historic 2-0 defeat to Honduras.

"You can't be serious?" read the front page of the sports daily newspaper Lance in the aftermath.

It was a day for Honduran heroes to be made, with their own goalkeeper Noel Valladares having an exceptional game, epitomising the true nature of a ‘shot-stopper’.

The game set up a semi-final meeting with hosts Colombia at El Campín, where they were ultimately defeated 2-0 and entered into a third-placed play-off game where they once again faced Uruguay. It was 2-2 after 90 minutes against a side who had won 14 previous championships saw the quest for bronze eventually taken to penalties.

With Carlos Gutiérrez missing Uruguay’s second spot-kick and Honduras making no mistake in from their five, third-place was confirmed and mark the most remarkable debut participation in Copa America history.

Colombia meanwhile would go onto win their first ever Copa America in a match against Mexico at the Estadio El Campín in Bogotá, a match which was delayed by some ill-timed parachutists hired for the tournament’s closing ceremony. They won without conceding a single goal throughout the campaign.

Honduras have so far not made another appearance at the Copa America since. Their bronze-medal position however remains one of the most incredible feats in the history of the competition.

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