Rueda: Honduras team has helped defuse tensions

TEGUCIGALPA - Honduras may have tortilla thin chances of getting past the first round at the World Cup but the team's achievement has helped unite the country amid the political crisis last year, coach Reinaldo Rueda said.

Colombian Rueda told Reuters he saw a similarity, though on a much smaller scale, with Nelson Mandela's South Africa and the Rugby World Cup in 1995 when reading the book "Playing the Enemy".

"I read that book and I thought about what we are doing here...It's a Latin American theme," Rueda said in an interview at a hotel in the capital Tegucigalpa, shaken last year by a coup.

Rueda also recalled the job his compatriot Hernan Gomez had done in Ecuador, overcoming the racial divide between the Andean capital and the Pacific coast to steer them to their first World Cup in 2002.

The 53-year-old from Cali said he had come to the conclusion after taking the Honduras job in 2007 that the way to improve the national team was to break down the Central American country's racial and social prejudices.

"I think it was a coincidence," he said of his staff's work and the presidential crisis.

"We had set ourselves the goal since 2007, after analysing the regional rivalries here, that the national team...should be a unifying factor in the country and we would have to win that on the pitch," he said.

"So we were on that road, two years on, when the events of June 28 occurred and that had other connotations, not just regional rivalries but also political ones with conflict and polarisation.

"It coincided with the final straight in the World Cup qualifiers and the national team became a great cause in reuniting families, liberating tensions."

DECISIVE MATCH

Rueda said a home match against Costa Rica, a 4-0 victory, in August was decisive.

"The political divisions were still strong and there the people were able to free their tension, embrace each other, as if finding each other again," he said.

"With qualification in October, practically a month and half from the elections, Hondurans recovered their nationalistic mystique, their self esteem, motivation, their pride in their flag and their country."

This has inevitably led to Hondurans feeling theirs could be a surprise team at the finals in South Africa starting on June 11, to the point that the gains of qualification might be lost in the disappointment of failure.

"The biggest challenge will be to get through the first round and be prepared to assimilate the two situations (win or lose) in the same way," he said.

With Group H rivals Chile, favourites Spain and Switzerland, in that order, it would be remarkable if Honduras were to finish in the top two.

"But there's the illusion of having to play for it all on the pitch, that everything's possible in football and the important thing here is for directors, media, everyone to ensure the fans do not feel frustrated, deceived, disillusioned when there is an adverse result."

HONDURAN CITIZENSHIP

Rueda, who said he did not know if he would stay in the job, has been granted Honduran citizenshi