Qualifier a welcome break in post-coup Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA - Their president is locked in an embassy after a coup and the de facto ruler is isolated, but most Hondurans care only for football this weekend as they pray for victory over the United States in a crucial World Cup match.

A win on Saturday would put the national team tantalizingly close to winning a coveted place in the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.

It would be only the second time that Honduras has ever made it to the World Cup finals. Its last appearance was in Spain in 1982.

Political turmoil in the divided country has dampened football fever a little ahead of the game but fans will still fill the stadium in the northern city of San Pedro Sula and crowd around TV screens across the country.

"Honduras has two passions: football and politics," said Alberto Carranza, 52, reading a football newspaper in a park in Tegucigalpa, the capital city.

"We are truly in a difficult situation now and this game is an escape for us. If the team beats the United States, we will be able to relax a little."

Exiled at gun point in a dawn coup in late June, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has spent more than two weeks holed up in the Brazilian embassy since slipping back into the country and past military road blocks to appear in Tegucigalpa.

He may watch the game on the only TV set in the embassy, although a Reuters witness inside says the reception is poor.

His replacement at the helm, Roberto Micheletti, has infuriated foreign governments with a clampdown on media and heavy-handed tactics against pro-Zelaya protests. Rights groups say several protesters have died.

Close to the presidential palace, Edwin Martin, 22, sells the blue and white shirts of the national team by abandoned fast food restaurants where windows were smashed in protests in the days after the June coup.

"It has an impact, people are more reluctant to buy," he said as a group of soldiers looked on from a commandeered bar across the street. "But on Saturday they won't worry about anything more than the game and getting their shirt."

The U.S. team arrived in San Pedro Sula on Thursday to prepare for the match. Security will be very tight to make sure no pro-Zelaya protests reach the stadium.

The United States leads the qualifying group and is favorite to win on Saturday but Honduras is playing its strongest squad for years, with several players home from top European teams such as Inter Milan and Tottenham.

The team has a 100 percent home record in qualifiers this round, and victory would give it a great chance of qualifying for South Africa.

Despite his excitement ahead of the match, retired truck driver Francisco Ortega said the pleasure would be fleeting before the reality of a divided country came flooding back.

"For us football is festive, we live it for a short while then return to what we were. It's a moment, no more."