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Reporter’s Notebook: World Cup News Turns Political in Honduras

BY newsdesk  October 15, 2009 at 5:30 PM EDT

Hondurans celebrating qualifying for 2010 World Cup. Photo Credit: Marcelo Ballve

When Honduras qualified late Wednesday for its first soccer World Cup since 1982, the streets of the capital Tegucigalpa became a giant tailgate party.

Soccer fans leaned out of car windows, in bumper-to-bumper celebratory traffic, waving flags and yelling, “Si se pudo!” or “Yes, we did it!”

But the question many Hondurans asked as they savored their soccer accomplishment was: “What effect will it have on the political crisis?”

In fact, talks over the fate of ousted President Manuel Zelaya have been marked by endless speculation on how the World Cup bid might affect the negotiations’ dynamics.

Just after the victory of “The H,” as the Honduran team is affectionately known, Manuel Salgado, a 23-year-old college student, said he hoped the victory would help Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti reach a deal.

“The country’s political problem is hurting all of us,” said Salgado, his eyes welling up with tears whenever he mentioned the 2010 World Cup bid. “Micheletti and Zelaya should look into their hearts and work for peace. I hope our triumph helps to work things out.”

Honduras has been wracked by protests and split into two bitterly opposed camps ever since Zelaya was ousted in a military-backed coup on June 28, and forced into exile. Zelaya snuck back into the country last month, and has been rallying supporters from his refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

Just before the game, Vilma Morales, one of Micheletti’s negotiators, said in a news conference at the Casa Presidencial that though the talks were still stuck on the question of Zelaya’s reinstatement, the country’s attention was turning to the game.

“We’re all hoping for Honduras to qualify tonight, that’s what we all want,” she said.

Honduras did get what it wanted, but the unresolved political standoff still hangs over the country during Thursday’s national holiday. The unexpected holiday was announced just after the game by Micheletti. He appeared on national TV an hour or so after it became clear Honduras had secured the World Cup slot, flanked by family members.

After shouting “Viva Honduras!” Micheletti said, “In this country we all follow soccer, we’re all fanatics. The national team brings us all together.”

Asked by the TV sports anchor whether the victory might be followed by more good news on the political negotiations, Micheletti replied, “We’re all hoping for that, the talks will go on. The negotiators won’t be on holiday. But … I don’t think anyone wants to hear about politics tonight.”

But others viewed Micheletti’s TV appearance as politically motivated.

“Soccer and politics are tied together in Honduras,” said Marvin Ponce, a pro-Zelaya congressman, hours before the game. “I’m worried that if Honduras wins, there won’t be a deal,” since Micheletti’s negotiators will feel they have more leverage.

In fact, some Zelaya supporters were so spooked by this hypothesis that before the game they urged their rank-and-file to tamp down their soccer enthusiasm.

“The Honduran national soccer team is property of the oligarchs,” said Juan Barahona, a coordinator for the National Resistance Front Against the Coup, told a few hundred of supporters in downtown Tegucigalpa. “If Honduras loses, we don’t lose, it’s the oligarchs who lose.”

Barahona was referring mostly to Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero and Jose Rafael Ferrari, the powerful top officials of the Honduran Autonomous Soccer Federation, and Zelaya enemies.

“Honduran soccer belongs to everyone, it’s sacred, but it’s in the hands of people who own everything,” alleged Eric Arrazola, a 33-year-old gym teacher and Zelaya supporter.

But those who oppose Zelaya accused the other side of lack of loyalty and patriotism. El Heraldo, a pro-Micheletti newspaper, published a front-page headline on its Web site a few hours after Honduras qualified: “Zelayistas Did Not Want Honduras to Qualify.”

The accompanying article compiled reader comments castigating Zelaya’s supporters for their lack of soccer fervor. “The readers of www.elheraldo.hn were indignant and irritated, their blood boiled,” knowing some Hondurans did not want the team to qualify, began the article.

It may seem surprising how much attention is given in Honduras to links between soccer and politics. But in Central America, a region of tiny countries with similar demographics, soccer is one of the sure-fire ways for nationalism to express itself.

The sport has even helped spark a Central American war. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought the so-called Soccer War, a four-day conflict sparked in part by a World Cup qualifying game.

Even if some in Honduras believe the World Cup triumph will throw a wrench into talks, others are more optimistic. Before another qualifying game last week, diplomat John Biel, a Chilean sent by the Organization of American States to observe the negotiations, said the talks would be aided by a Honduran win.

“This country’s nationalistic like any other,” he told a group of reporters. “Soccer can unify it.”

Editor’s note: This reporting from Honduras is a partnership between the NewsHour and New America Media.