The U.S. Men’s National Team’s loss to Honduras on Wednesday generated a small wave of surprise and recrimination. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has come in for criticism for showing either a lack of respect for Los Catrachos or a bit of naïvete by playing a young defensive line with no cohesion. The surprise stems from the fact that while the Estadio Olimpico has been a difficult test for many national teams in the recent past, it has not been so for the United States—Honduras’ only home loss in the past two World Cup campaigns (2006/2010) was to the United States, which had won three straight in San Pedro Sula prior to Wednesday.
In fact, the loss should—and has been—put into context: away matches in the CONCACAF Hexagonal are always difficult, often due to the atmosphere in the host country. Typically, away teams confront sleepless nights defined by raucous crowds outside their hotels, see offensive graffiti on walls lining the route to the stadium, and face heaps of abuse—batteries and bags of urine, according to Jozy Altidore—at the hands of local fans. Matches themselves are scheduled to maximize the home team’s advantage. For Wednesday’s game, the Honduran government called a national holiday in order to insure a packed stadium and streets full of supporters, and scheduled the game at 3 p.m. to maximize the mid-afternoon tropical heat. This is the case for all teams that play in Central America during the Hexagonal.
But soccer—especially international soccer—is rarely just soccer. Thus, the U.S. team often engenders more hostility than others, a fact that U.S. media outlets never fail to report. In the run-up to the February 6 match, however, journalists went beyond the usual commentary on hostile crowds. Instead, they highlighted the difficulty of play in a country as dangerous as Honduras, noting the “bleak picture of life in this beleaguered Central American country.” Another recognized that conditions in Honduras were “much worse” than the last match between the two teams in San Pedro Sula, played months after a coup ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. (Of course, social conditions tend to affect journalists much more than players, who travel to and from the field under heavy police protection and are very rarely victims of random crime, but that is another story.) Telling the U.S. audience about crime rates, however, does little more than set the scenario for the match and reinforce two-dimensional pictures of Central American nations as violent.
Just as the U.S. loss needs context, then, so too understanding conditions in Honduras can help explain why the U.S. team faces greater hostility than other opponents. Even if U.S. soccer pedigree fails to inspire fear in Central American fans, U.S. economic and political influence raises the symbolic stakes in qualifying matches. Historically, from the mid-nineteenth century filibustering expedition of William Walker to early twentieth century occupations and late twentieth century support for unpopular governments, the United States has played an outsized role in the domestic affairs of most Central American nations.
In the specific case of Honduras, the heightened emotions surrounding Wednesday’s match stem from more recent concerns. The short version goes something like this: in June 2009 Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power and flown out of the country by the Honduran military. The U.S. government reportedly knew of the coup before hand, and in the immediate aftermath blocked the Organization of American States from suspending Honduras. It further legitimated the removal of the president by supporting new presidential elections. Since the inauguration of the new, more pro-U.S. president, Honduras has become a focal point in the U.S. War on Drugs, with increased funding and training for Honduran security forces. But this has come at a cost Some claim that 40 percent of the Honduran police are part of organized crime syndicates, while human rights abuses under the new government have skyrocketed. Indeed, the spike in the Honduran crime rate coincides with the 2009 undermining of democracy in the country. Little wonder, then, that Hondurans relish making the U.S. team as uncomfortable as possible.
While—given the present climate—San Pedro Sula is likely the hardest place that the United States will play in the Hexagonal, the team should expect a similar treatment in Panama later this year. Even in Costa Rica and Mexico, where U.S. interventions are farther in the past and influence-peddling seems less obvious, U.S. players should expect extra hostility. Soccer aside, the United States remains the regional hegemon. For the U.S. sports media, mentioning why the U.S. team is unpopular might help fans move beyond simplistic conceptions of Central America as violent or unstable to a deeper understanding of the politics at play in an international soccer match.