A Honduran World Cup hero has given regional minnows Belize hope of Gold Cup qualification

New national coach Jose De la Paz Herrera certainly can’t complain about a lack of preparation time in his new job. Having pipped Carlos Del Toro – an Argentinian living in Costa Rica – to the Belize job at the start of 2010, the Honduran must wait over a year before his first competitive match.

“It’s all a challenge,” says Herrera, who coached Honduras to the 1982 World Cup finals and was also in charge for the 2006 qualifiers. “This is what attracted me most to the Belize proposal. There is a lot to do and we are starting from almost zero.”

That might sound harsh, but Herrera is simply being honest. While Honduras are regional giants, Belize are minnows. The seven regional associations – Belmopan, Belize District, Cayo, Corozal, Orange Walk, Stann Creen and Toledo – that make up the Football Federation of Belize (FFB) all run their own competitions, but they are strictly amateur. The Belize Premier League, meanwhile, is semi-professional but membership has fallen from a dozen clubs to just eight, with Belize Defence Force the reigning champions.

And despite the FFB receiving £0.75million from FIFA’s GOAL fund between 2001 and 2007, the country still lacks a FIFA-standard stadium.

“This is a big problem,” admits FFB president, Dr Bertie Chimilio.

“For internationals we have no suitable stadium.”

Belize was formerly the colony of British Honduras and the FFB was founded in 1980 – a year before independence. Belize joined FIFA in 1986 but did not enter any international competitions for a decade.

After failing to qualify for the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Belize entered the 1998 World Cup qualifiers but success was minimal. Amid internal turmoil, the FFB did not even try to qualify for the 2003 Gold Cup.

Reason for optimism
Yet amidst all this, there is reason for optimism in Belize with the appointment of Herrera.

FFB technical director for development Renan Couoh was all set to take the national job purely because Chimilio did not expect to be able to recruit such a strong candidate.

But now Couoh can concentrate on running the youth teams, while Herrera can look forward to next year’s UNCAF Nations Cup in Costa Rica, where Belize captain and goalkeeper Shane Orio plays for Ramonense. The biannual competition is Belize’s most regular international foray and offers a chance for Gold Cup qualification.

Of the other six teams in the Central American Football Union (UNCAF), three – Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador – have appeared in the World Cup finals and are unbeatable, but, with five teams qualifying for the Gold Cup, Belize will be hoping to beat Guatemala, Nicaragua or Panama.

So far that has never happened. Belize have drawn three and lost 14 UNCAF matches since 1995, but progress is being made.

In the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Belize won a tie for the first time. Forced to play their home leg in Guatemala City, they beat St Kitts 3-1 before drawing 1-1 in the return at Warner Park in Basseterre to secure a second round tie with Mexico.

Despite a predictable 9-0 aggregate defeat, Chimilio is more optimistic than ever and he believes that qualification for the 2011 Gold Cup is a realistic target for Herrera and his side.