So said, Luiz Felipe Scolari, as he contemplated how a defeat, so unexpected, so demoralising, so contrary to the established order of things, would surely blight his career and reputation for evermore.
Pitted against the Hondurans in the quarter-final of the Copa America of 2001, Brazil would already have been planning their semi-final strategy ahead of the game. After all, Brazil were, in most people’s eyes, the stand-out squad at the tournament. In contrast, Honduras had only been invited to join the other teams in Colombia at the last minute – in fact the last seconds of the last minute – following Argentina’s late withdrawal. Consequently, they had precious little preparation time and their squad was shorn of a number of key players still engaged in domestic matters. Last minute guests to the party, they were under-prepared, under-manned and – as it turned out to Brazil’s cost – underestimated. Just how late the Hondurans’ invite to the party popped through their letterbox can be illustrated by a brief resume of the events prior to the tournament.
The Copa America was organised by the CONMEBOL federation and involved all ten members of the South American affiliated countries, plus guests, usually invited from Central or North America. For the 2001 tournament it had been decided to invite Mexico and the CONCACAF champions of the day, Canada, taking to the total of countries competing to twelve. These would be split into three groups of four, with the top two from each group, plus the two best third place team’s making up the quarter-finals. The tournament was to take place between 11th and 29th July in Colombia. A few events would take place before that first day arrived however that would reshape the competition.
Never the most stable place in the world, there were particular security concerns about Colombia hosting the tournament and a number of CONMEBOL members had reservations about travelling there, with meetings held to discuss how such concerns should be addressed and to consider potential courses of action. Eventually, on 1st July, it was announced that the tournament had been cancelled “for security reasons.” Venezuela offered themselves as alternative hosts in a bid to save the day, but the logistics were too far down the road to be switched at such a late date. The Canadians decamped from their training base and headed home with their players returning to the various clubs across the globe or for summer breaks.
Not untypical of the state of affairs in CONMEBOL at the time, five days after the cancellation, the federation performed a ‘volte face’ and announced that the tournament had been reinstated and would go ahead in Colombia as originally scheduled. Understandably, the Canadians decided that to recall their players and set things up again a mere ten days ahead of the tournament was impractical, and they withdrew.
Unperturbed, CONMEBOL turned to Costa Rica to take the Canadians’ place. The Costa Ricans accepted. There was however greater trouble ahead. The Argentine Football Federation had never been happy with Colombia as the host and as well as the short notice of reinstatement, they also made it known that a number of their players had received death threats. Feeling unable to guarantee the safety of their nationals, on 10th July, the day before the tournament was to start, they announced that Argentina would not compete.
The move could have sounded the death knell for that year’s competition. Losing the Canadians was one thing, but Argentina were one of the federation’s leading powers. A tournament shorn of the ‘Albiceleste’ was almost unthinkable. The Colombian authorities offered to provide additional security measures, but to no avail. Either for reasons of genuine concern or political expediency, the Argentines would not be swayed. After a last minute meeting, it was decided to proceed with the tournament, and seek a replacement team. Honduras were approached, and agreed to take part.
On 13th July, mere hours before their first game was due to get under way, a Colombian Air Force plane brought the woefully underprepared, undermanned, scratch Honduras squad to Colombia. Only there to make up the numbers surely. With little to lose, and perhaps seeing themselves as the saviours of the tournament, that wasn’t how the Hondurans saw it though.
Not only the nation’s football team, but Honduran nationals also, are often referred to as ‘Los Catrachos.’ Although the origination appears clouded in the mists of time, the name seems to refers to two brothers, both generals who led the Honduran forces in the mid-nineteenth century. Florencio and Pedro Xatruch were national heroes and the description of their troops as ‘xatruches’ became ‘Catrachos.’ Florencio would later go on to a political career, serving for a time as his nation’s president. The brothers led the fight against the forces of William Walker, an American adventurer seeking to seize control of a number of Latin American countries, and set them up as vassal states. Los Catrachos is therefore both a badge of honour and an incantation to fight against odds for the country’s honour. In the Copa America of 2001, the Honduran side that turned up, wore that badge – and honoured it.
In the meantime, and oblivious to the implications of the last minute arrivals entering the fray, Brazil were going about their business. Despite unexpectedly losing their opening game to Mexico, Scolari got his team back into the groove with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Peru, and followed it with a 3-1 win over Paraguay – albeit secured by two late goals – that saw them finish top of their group ahead of the Mexicans.
Landing in the country on the same day as they were due to face the other replacement side, Costa Rica, was asking an awful lot of Honduras, and no-one was surely surprised when Los Catrachos succumbed to a Paolo Wanchope goal to lose 1-0 in Medelin. Three days later, and still hardly prepared, they returned to the city to face Bolivia. Another defeat would surely have meant the end of the road and a quick journey back home, but having fulfilled their obligations to the tournament. Against the odds however, Honduras overcame Bolivia 2-0. Both goals were scored by Amado Guevara. A couple of decades earlier, his namesake Ernesto (Che) had been killed whilst trying to foment a popular revolution in Bolivia. In 2001 however, Amado turned over that nation’s football team, and set Honduras on an unlikely trajectory.
In their final group game, Honduras were to face Uruguay. With Argentina now absent, ‘La Celeste’ would surely have seen this tournament has a golden opportunity, with perhaps only Brazil to fear. They had already beaten Bolivia and drawn with Costa Rica. Although the rather complicated qualification format of the tournament meant that a number of third place teams in the four team groups could still qualify, finishing in the top two was the only sure way to progress and a victory for Uruguay could have seen them top the table and may well have eliminated Los Catrachos. In a close game however, Guevara netted again with just a few minutes remaining to give Honduras a 1-0 victory and an unexpected second place in the group behind Costa Rica, ahead of Uruguay, who also qualified for the last eight as one of the best third place teams.
As with Uruguay, but perhaps even more so, with Argentina absent, many would have considered that Brazil would be a ‘shoo-in’ to win the tournament, perhaps alongside the host nation. When the quarter-finals paired the four-time world champions with the latecomers to the tournament, all seemed on track. Had Scolari and the team – destined to regain the world crown the following year – been more attuned to potential dangers however, there were a few warning signs to take heed of.
Despite their disadvantages, Honduras had battled through to the last eight of the tournament, losing just a single game, and that to Mexico, played on the same day as they arrived in Colombia. In their other two group games, they had yet to concede a goal and had disposed of the dangerous Uruguay – who would go on to reach the semi-finals – to ensure qualification. The spirit of Los Catrachos appeared alive and well. Brazil may not have taken heed.
The game took place on 23rd July 2001 at the Estadio Palogrande in Manizales, and all seemed set for the expected result as Brazil dominated the early play. Although technically gifted, the Hondurans appeared lightweight in attack and vulnerable at the back against their more illustrious opponents. Half-time came and went without any score, but still Brazil seemed in comfortable control and surely a goal or two would come.
As any General would know however, particularly perhaps the Xatruch brothers, the time to strike at an opponent is when they are over-confident. Twelve minutes into the second half, Julio Leon faked to cross and then checked back onto his left foot to swing the ball across the area. It reached Saul Martinez by the near post, who flicked the ball on, and over Marcos. Unfortunately, it then struck the far post and was heading back into the field ofp lay. Covering to defend however, Juliano Belletti stood almost paralyzed by events as the ball then struck him before rolling over the line. A despairing swing from the unfortunate full back couldn’t redeem the situation and Honduras were ahead. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for Belletti, but sometimes – especially in football – things seem to be written.
Five minutes later, perhaps that was less the case. Honduras had the ball in the net again, but this time the goal was ruled out as the referee decided the ball had gone or of play moments earlier. Television replays would show him to be in error and the goal should have stood. Had it done so, the remainder of the game may have been more comfortable for Honduras, but with a single goal deficit, Scolari’s team stormed forward with an almost righteous indignation to put the upstart Hondurans in their place. An equaliser failed to materialise however.
As the game progressed and Brazilian attacks continued to founder against the Honduran defence now emboldened by their play, tension grew. The Brazilian skipper Ferreira and Honduran defender Carcamo were dismissed for fighting, but despite pressure and a plethora of corners, Brazil appeared incapable of transforming domination of possession into the vital commodity of a goal. Then, in the fourth minute of injury time, Martinez found himself on the end of an Honduran break. As the ball was squared to him inside the penalty area with only Marcos to beat, the only company he had was another Honduran. Calmly, he controlled with his left foot, before firing home with his right, to net his second and earn the heirs of the Xatruch brothers their greatest footballing victory. Hondurans were in the last four of the Copa America and had disposed of Uruguay and the mighty Brazil on the way; neither of which had even managed to score against them.
Despite his comments as mentioned above, Scolari was gracious enough afterwards to concede that “Honduras played better, they deserved their win.” Striker Guilherme was more concerned with his sides failings, remarking that, “We played well below our capabilities.”
The home press seemed to agree. Sports daily ‘Lance’ captured the mood, “You can’t be serious!” it screamed with apparent incredulity. ‘Globo’ called the result an’ “historic shame.” It was a result that not only shocked the Brazilian public. Back in Britain, the press were also struck by the temerity of Honduras. The BBC called it, “The biggest shock in Copa America history.” The Guardian declared that, “Brazil crash to new indignity.” The Telegraph satisfied itself by saying the four-time World Cup winners had been ”humbled” by Honduras.
In the semi-final, Honduras would lose to hosts Colombia, but then clinch a highly credible third place in the competition by defeating Uruguay again in the bronze medal match after winning a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw. For Los Catrachos, it had been a performance that far exceeded expectations, and probably represented the country’s best ever display in international competition, with the victory over Brazil as the centre-piece. Despite the press reaction and the lament of Scolari, had it really been the shock that everyone seemed to present it as.
Brazil’s fortunes were at a particularly low ebb at the time. They were lying fourth in their World Cup qualifying group and in real danger of facing the ignominy of not qualifying for the 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea. They faced a vital qualifying game after the Copa America against Paraguay. Defeat would have unthinkable consequences. Further, Honduras were not the only team to arrive in Colombia without a number of first choice players. Captain Mauro Silva had decided not to travel due to safety concerns and Bayern Munich had forbidden Giovanni Elber from joining the squad for the same reason. Indeed the team sent out against Honduras was hardly bristling with star names. Take a look:
Marcos, Luizao, Cris, Juan, Belleti, Eduardo Costa, Emerson, Alex, Junior, Guilherme, Denilson.
Suffice to say that Brazil did manage to a secure qualification, for the World Cup finals and on 30th June 2002, when the Seleção lifted the trophy for the fifth time in Tokyo – less than 12 months after the defeat – the embarrassing loss to Honduras could be consigned to a footnote in the history of Brazilian football exploits.
Would the team that defeated Germany in the biggest game in the world have fallen against Honduras on that July day in Colombia? Who can say, but a comparison of the team that put Brazil back on top of the footballing world and the one that lost to Honduras is striking:
Marcos, Lúcio, Edmílson, Roque Júnior, Cafu (c), Gilberto Silva, Kléberson, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo
Perhaps the defeat gave Scolari’s team a kick in the right direction. As with Honduras, Brazilians also have a heritage to live up to. If Honduras delivered on theirs in Colombia, Brazil did the same in Japan. Perhaps a few Brazilians even forgave Scolari for his “horrible” defeat to Los Catrachos.
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