Guatemala has never qualified for the World Cup, but it only just missed out on making it to the 2006 tournament in Germany. As the team prepares for its semifinal round opening game against the U.S. Wednesday, Steven Goff in Guatemala City discovers that hopes are higher than ever before in a country of 13 million soccer fanatics, but where "a berth in the quadrennial championship has remained excruciatingly elusive."
"The people have been waiting a very long time," said national team coach Ramón Maradiaga, a native Honduran who played in the 1982 World Cup. "The people come to me on the street and tell me how important it is for the country to go to the World Cup. They believe, this time, it is possible. Everyone is an optimist."
Guatemala has had its own domestic league for over a century, but the league's level of play is not high enough, concedes L.A. Galaxy striker Carlos Ruiz, one of a handful of Guatemalan squad members playing abroad. But Gustavo Cabrera, who played briefly in Major League Soccer and who now plays in Europe, said, "Because we were very close last time, everyone is hopeful that our fortunes will change. We have a combination of experienced players and young players, and those young players have not had to suffer through the past. Everyone is determined."