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Sports, politics make for volatile Honduran mix

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Honduras coup
Supporters of ousted President Manuel Zelaya protest.
(Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo)

The United States' final step toward a place in the World Cup next year is also its most treacherous, a leap into the unknown in the form of a foreign fray laced with political unrest and social discord.

Even at the best of times, Honduras is a road trip from hell for visiting teams. Throw in the explosive mix of a governmental upheaval, militaristic rule, civil protest and a potentially decisive World Cup qualifier, and the stakes are ratcheted up several more notches.

Bob Bradley's U.S. side knows it can cut through all the CONCACAF group's mathematical permutations and scenarios with a chilling simplicity if it can emerge victorious in San Pedro Sula on Saturday and claim the three points that would immediately punch a ticket to South Africa next summer.

However, such a task has proved beyond the eight teams who have traveled to Honduras during this World Cup qualifying campaign and returned home cowed and defeated.

The electric atmosphere of the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano and the fluid skills of the Honduran team are a tough combination to crack, yet that is what the USA must do if it is to avoid a tense final game showdown with Costa Rica in Washington D.C. next Wednesday.

Man for man, Bradley will like the way his squad stacks up. Moreover, confidence in the USA camp is high after two straight wins and the residual feel-good factor spawned by the Confederations Cup.

But what effect will the Honduran social situation have on the match? And how will it impact the psyche of both sets of players?

Honduras is divided between two rival political factions. President Manuel Zelaya was deposed at gunpoint in June and banished to Costa Rica, but he has since returned and is holed up in the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Supporters of Zelaya and his successor Roberto Micheletti have clashed repeatedly, and a nighttime curfew has been put in place in an attempt to prevent further unrest.

Yet the curfew has only added to the tension and left the citizens frustrated and needing to vent. That opportunity will arrive in the form of Saturday's match, when the restriction will be lifted to allow the public to witness the contest against the U.S.

Soccer will effectively succeed, for a couple of hours at least, where the politicos have failed by uniting a fractured nation behind one cause.

"When it comes to the national team, I don't see any separation," Honduras head coach Reinaldo Rueda said. "Our players know they have the whole country behind them, no matter what people believe politically.

"Our focus is trying to reach the World Cup. But we are human and we are not blind. We can see the situation around us and we know that by achieving our dream we can lift the nation."

Honduras has only qualified once for a World Cup, in 1982, and may never get a better chance than this.

Excitement and anticipation is such that the USA team will be given a police escort at all times. The hostility toward the visitors will be palpable.

"We know how important it is for Honduras, for us, to qualify," said midfielder Hendry Thomas, who plays for English Premier League side Wigan Athletic. "It adds a lot of pressure but it also inspires us. We know the people have a lot to deal with and we want to lift them."

Many of the Honduran players ply their trade in Europe and have had to deal with concern for their families while the coup raged. Reliable information about the political situation has been hard to come by.

With airports temporarily shut down following Zelaya's removal from power, Inter Milan's David Suazo did not have his travel plans for this game finalized until a few days before the game.

"It is a difficult situation," Suazo said. "In some ways it could be a distraction but we prefer to see it as a commitment to our country. The USA is a good team but they will never have faced anyone as motivated as us."

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