Road To South Africa | The Story of El Salvador's Savior
If El Salvador's footballing history had to be summed up as quickly as possible: Their best player was Jorge González, a man Diego Maradona called "El Mágico" or "The Magician".
They've qualified to two World Cups: Mexico 1970 and Spain 1982. In the '82 tournament, they set a record for most goals conceded in a single game, ten, against Hungary.
Despite never obtaining a single point in World Cup play and claiming a second place finish in the 1963 CONCACAF Championships as their biggest accomplishment, tiny El Salvador is now poised to make the final qualifying round for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
At the head of this unexpected development is Mexican coach Carlos de los Cobos, a "homegrown" manager who found success at the helm of C.D. FAS, leading the club to two finals in 2006.
Following the removal of Argentinian manager Carlos Cavagnaro, de los Cobos became national team coach. Conscious of the result-driven position that managers are always in, he said of his team's aspirations: "Our work needs to be focused on being in South Africa 2010."
While his words might not have made waves outside of El Salvador, de los Cobos' team has certainly put the rest of CONCACAF on notice with the results they've obtained in World Cup qualifying.
After an easy first round series against Anguilla, El Salvador knocked off 2005 Gold Cup runners-up Panama and acceeded to the third round group stage, being placed with Costa Rica, Haiti, and Suriname.
At the conclusion of the first leg, El Salvador sit in second place (two teams qualify from the group). With six points and two home games remaining on their schedule, qualification is almost a certainty, barring a truly horrendous second leg.
Whereas other relatively small footballing nations in CONCACAF rely on the odd star playing abroad, El Salvador's talent is almost entirely local (only one player de los Cobos called on to face Suriname plays outside of El Salvador—in Costa Rica).
While aging Salvadoran stars mostly ply their trade in MLS, de los Cobos' youth movement with local players has paid dividends.
El Salvador's offensive scheme has been likened to Carlos' old club as a player: Club América, which won five league titles in the 1980's, all with de los Cobos starting in the back line. He and many of his teammates represented Mexico in the 1986 World Cup, where El Tri reached their highest position in history.
His preference of strong, tactically fit defenders (much like he was) has netted him results: in the last game against Surinam, defender Shawn Martin struck the first goal home and then provoked the second, a Surinamese own goal.
Coupling CONCACAF's unpredictability and a lax schedule in the final round of qualifying could very well net El Salvador in their first World Cup since 1982, certainly delighting Salvadorian fans and also giving Mexican fans a supplemental bonus: de los Cobos would be the first Mexican manager to ever coach a foreign squad into the tournament.
With Sven-Goran Eriksson most likely keeping reins on the Mexican squad until 2010, he would also be the first Mexican manager period since 2002 to be in the World Cup, when Javier Aguirre did it.
Working wonders with the country's confidence level so far, de los Cobos has deflected questions about eventually working with Mexico's national team by saying that he is "very happy in El Salvador, the people treat me so well here."
For a football-mad country starved of any real success for more than two decades, redundancy be damned:
Carlos is El Salvador's savior.
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