The Central Americans are in contention to qualify for the 2010 World Cup amid accusations of unsporting behaviour.
By Brian Homewood
Once the strongest side in Central America – before they were overtaken by Costa Rica and Honduras – El Salvador have reached the final stage of the CONCACAF regional World Cup qualifiers for the first time in 12 years.
Mexican coach Carlos De los Cobos has worked hard in difficult circumstances to make the team competitive since taking over in August 2006, having been faced with constant bickering from local clubs over the release of players and at one stage facing a walkout by the squad over a pay row.
Another bright spot is Eliseo Quintanilla, a 26-year-old midfielder with CD Aguila who is one of the most talented players the country has produced in years.
But the national team’s revival has been accompanied by some unsavoury incidents, including allegations of urine throwing and racism by their fans, and the suspension of a recent match after they were reduced to six players in suspicious circumstances.
In June last year, El Salvador were trailing visitors Panama 1-0 at half-time in the second leg of a preliminary World Cup qualifying round tie, having already lost the first leg 1-0.
However, the home side still went through, scoring three times in the last 20 minutes (including a controversial penalty) as Panama had two players sent off.
“From the start to the finish of the game our players were constantly insulted by the public who, in addition to the racist insults, threw bottles, bags of water and bags of urine, amid the indifference of the police, who should have given protection,” said the Panamanian federation in a letter to FIFA.
Panama also complained about the referee, Marco Antonio Rodriguez of Mexico, who they claimed, among other things, failed to stop the game when a bottle was thrown at their goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
Despite this, nothing was ever heard of the matter and, surprisingly, Rodriguez was also put in charge of El Salvador’s World Cup qualifier at home to Trinidad & Tobago in February which ended 2-2.
El Salvador had disgraced themselves again even before the Trinidad match; this time in a UNCAF tournament in Honduras, which is a qualifying competition for the Gold Cup.
Facing Costa Rica in the semi-finals, El Salvador had two players sent off in the first 25 minutes and were soon 1-0 down.
In such a situation, a coach may be expected to avoid making substitutions in case he runs out of players. But De los Cobos did exactly the opposite, replacing one player in the 21st minute and two more at half-time.
Within 15 minutes of the restart, two Salvadorean players went down claiming to be injured and the game was called off because, with only six players, they were below the minimum number needed to carry on.
An investigation was promised, which could have led to El Salvador being kicked out of the Gold Cup in July (they had already qualified by reaching the semis) but, as with the Panama incident, the authorities went strangely silent.
“We’ve had a bad night. The referee saw things which didn’t happen, his performance damaged El Salvador and stained the tournament. What happened afterwards was a circumstance of football, my players would never fake injuries. Our pride is intact,” said De los Cobos afterwards, insisting the injuries were genuine and blaming the referee…who just happened to be from Panama.