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Honduras joined USA and Mexico in the World Cup finals after a dramatic final round of qualifying matches.

Honduras won 1-0 in El Salvador – in a repeat of the 1969 World Cup qualifiers that triggered the “Soccer War” – to reach the finals for only the second time at the expense of Costa Rica, who saw their hopes of automatic qualification wiped out when they conceded a last-gasp equaliser to 10-man USA in Washington and now face a play-off with Uruguay for a place in South Africa.

Four days earlier, the US and Mexico had clinched their qualifying spots with wins over Honduras and El Salvador respectively.

The Americans assured themselves of a sixth successive finals place by winning 3-2 in San Pedro Sula, with Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey scoring twice.

The first half was goalless but the Hondurans broke the deadlock soon after the re-start through Julio De Leon. Casey headed the United States level minutes later and scored again from Landon Donovan’s pass in the 65th minute. Donovan’s free-kick stretched the lead to 3-1 and though De Leon gave Honduras hope by scoring his second, veteran striker Carlos Pavon sent a glorious chance to equalise from the penalty spot over the bar after Stuart Holden had handled.

“This was the most important game in qualifying because it was the one that has taken us to South Africa 2010,” said USA coach Bob Bradley. “When you have a group that has come together, that has worked hard, that has grown, when they’ve accomplished something it’s a special feeling. Tonight we can all share that feeling.”

Javier Aguirre’s Mexico claimed a convincing 4-1 home win to end El Salvador’s hopes of making it to South Africa. Mexico took the lead after 25 minutes through an own goal by Marvin Gonzalez but had to wait until the 71st minute to extend it when Cuauhtemoc Blanco converted Guillermo Franco’s pass. Veteran Juan Francisco Palencia made it 3-0 and though Julio Martinez scored a consolation for El Salvador, Carlos Vela grabbed Mexico’s fourth in injury time.

Aguirre, who succeeded Sven Goran Eriksson in April, said: “I feel calm. When you achieve the goals you were hired to do you feel satisfied.”

Defeat by USA left Honduras needing to win in El Salvador and hope that Costa Rica slipped up against the Americans.

In 1969 Honduras and El Salvador met in a two-legged World Cup qualifier against the backdrop of rising tensions between the two countries. Honduras won the first leg but
El Salvador took the second in San Salvador, where Honduran fans were attacked, prompting their country to break diplomatic relations with El Salvador. A 100-day war followed.

Relations have improved markedly since then but the latest match, back in San Salvador, was still a tense affair and was settled by Pavon, who headed in David Suazo’s cross in the 64th minute.

Honduran cheers at Pavon’s strike were tempered by the news filtering through from Washington that Costa Rica were 2-0 up against USA thanks to two first-half goals from Bryan Ruiz.

Michael Bradley, son of the US coach, pulled a goal back midway through the second half for the Americans, playing without Sochaux striker Charlie Davies, who had been critically injured in a car crash the previous day.

The US, having used up all their substitutes, went down to 10 men after defender Oguchi Onyewu was carried off with torn cruciate knee ligaments, but there was to be a final dramatic twist.

Bradley’s men mounted a last desperate attack in the fifth minute of added time and defender Jonathan Bornstein headed home to condemn the Ticos to the play-offs.

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