Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Unrest in Honduras May Force Move of U.S. Match

Honduras is something of a mess, at the moment. A coup ousted the president, who snuck back into Honduras this week, and he is holed up in the Brazilian Embassy.

There is unrest in the streets, with supporters of the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, confronting the police and armed forces.

Meanwhile, Honduran airports are closed, as are ports, and the only way into the country apparently is an overland route from neighboring El Salvador.

Political tension could make for sports improvisation, the Associated Press is reporting. To wit: The scheduled Oct. 10 match between Honduras's surprisingly formidable national team and the United States, scheduled at San Pedro Sula, the second city of Honduras, may have to be moved. Perhaps out of Honduras entirely.

According to the New York Times, Neil Buethe, a U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman, said, "We are obviously monitoring the situation closely and are in discussions with the appropriate officials with Concacaf and FIFA, who will determine if the location of the match will be moved outside of Honduras."

Where might the match be moved? The New York Times suggests Guatemala. The consensus seems to be it would be held somewhere in Central America, to give Honduras as big an advantage as possible -- given the situation. Though NYT notes that Honduras had lots of support when it played the U.S. in Chicago, in June.

The game is important on a really basic soccer level because the U.S. and Honduras are two of the four teams atop the close Concacaf qualifying table. With only two matches left.

The top three finishers are guaranteed berths at South Africa 2010. The No. 4 team goes to a home-and-home playoff with the No. 5 team out of South America.

Clearly, it is better to finish in the top three than to finish fourth.

The United States could clinch a top-three finish with a victory. Honduras would move very close to doing the same, were it to win. And the Hondurans would be favored in this match, under normal conditions, having won all four of their home matches in qualifying, to date. But the coach of the national team, Ramon Maradiego, said players are suffering from "constant uncertainty."

There is precedent for FIFA moving a qualifying match because of violence or upheaval in a country -- and in this qualifying phase, too. notes that, in 2007, a qualifier between China and Myanmar was staged in Malaysia after Myanmar's military broke up pro-democracy rallies, killing at least 10 people.

And NYT recalls that a 1996 U.S. match scheduled to be played in Guatemala was moved to El Salvador, "switching to a neutral site after a stadium stampede two months earlier in Guatemala City led to 84 deaths."

The World Cup is important. But not more important than the rise and fall of a government, and not more important than violence in the streets. You can't play a match when the rest of the city/country is in upheaval.

If Honduras doesn't settle down, and soon, look for that Oct. 10 match to be moved. Somewhere.

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