El Salvador’s secret weapon: a fan and his computer


SAN SALVADOR – For more than a decade, Hugo Alvarado scoured the internet for football players who could improve El Salvador’s national teams. He was, he shyly admits, pretty good at it.

Working from a personal computer in California, he quickly identified dozens of members of the vast Salvadoran diaspora, players with Salvadoran-sounding names or Salvadoran-looking faces and places on European professional club rosters. , teams from MLS academies and US university programs. Then, one by one, he tracked them down. Those who have expressed interest in playing for El Salvador have been added to the growing database on Alvarado’s website.

However, there was still a catch: Alvarado did not work for the El Salvador football federation. He had no authority to recruit players into his national teams. He was just a fan who wanted better teams to support.

“I wanted to see a more competitive national team,” he said this week, more than a decade after starting his project. “That’s why I do what I do.”

As the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar kicks off this week in North and Central America, there has been a lot of talk about the rebuilding of the United States men’s team following their failure in the United States. qualifying in 2017. But its first opponent Thursday, El Salvador, also has new leaders, a new coach and a new generation of bright young talent. And the reconstruction it has undertaken can be just as complete.

El Salvador was the first Central American country to qualify for the World Cup, in 1970, and the first to return for the second time, in 1982. Its team has mostly floundered since then, locked in by small reflections, great scandals and an inability – or refusal – to modernize. Quietly, all of this can change.

Last fall, the Salvadoran federation hired Diego Henríquez, a former youth international who had played college football in the United States, as its first sports director. Henriquez’s first hire was Hugo Pérez, a respected former football player and coach.

Their goal, initially, was to focus on stocking El Salvador’s youth teams with better players, from wherever they could find them. A former American under-17 player from Indiana with a Salvadoran father. A product of the New York Red Bulls academy with a Salvadoran mother. A pro in the Netherlands who was actually eligible to play for four countries and had previously worn the jersey of one of them. Even Pérez’s nephew, a former American football teammate of Christian Pulisic, did the trick.

This kind of open-arms strategy isn’t unique – Italy, England, Spain, and many other countries have all fielded foreign-born players – and Pérez knows its value as well as it does. Anyone: Born in El Salvador, he has played for the United States more than 70 times and has represented the country at the Olympics and the World Cup. And he, like almost everyone in Salvadoran football, had heard of Alvarado’s detective work.

“Bringing in talent from different parts of the world could be a plan in any federation,” said Henríquez, noting that the United States has been doing this for a long time and that Mexico has more recently made openings to born and developed players. in America. “It’s part of the restructuring of our identity.

Ambition, however, works best with a plan. Under Pérez and Henríquez, El Salvador has a holistic approach: top quality training and coaching, but also improvements in nutrition, sleep and fitness and a focus on “what it means to represent El Salvador, what means wearing a national team jersey. , what it means to come to a camp and be a professional.

Early returns have been promising: Hired to lead the youth squads, Henríquez and Pérez added responsibility for the senior squad in April, after worrying results in a previous World Cup qualifying round led to a change of coach. Relying on young players and new recruits, El Salvador advanced to the knockout stages of this summer’s Gold Cup, a major regional championship, and even gave Mexico a brief scare before going out into the quarterfinals. final.

El Salvador has little illusions about the task ahead in World Cup qualifiers: the region secures just three and a half places for next year’s tournament thanks to its eight octagonal qualifying teams , and few expect La Selecta, as El Salvador is called, to claim one. . The region’s representation will increase, however, when the World Cup expands to 48 teams in its next cycle.

“Our main target is 2026,” said Henríquez. “We’ve just started and we know it. “

Other new players will be part of the plans by then, but so will Alvarado. On the day he was hired last October, Henríquez told reporters he was open to “anyone who can help” El Salvador to improve. One of his first stops was in humans in California with the personal computer and the rich knowledge of the type of players that might be available. In October, Henriquez hired Alvarado as the first full-time scout in the history of the federation.

Henriquez said the plan was to sharpen Alvarado’s hobby and focus it on finding not all of the potential Selecta players, but some. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, he would essentially become a personal shopper, presented with a shopping list of specific needs – complementing an age group’s team, for example, or offering options to watch in a certain position, or a separate role. He and Henriquez are still unsure how much talent might be available.

“I need five Hugo Alvarados in North America,” said Henríquez.

Alvarado’s latest find, 20-year-old midfielder Enrico Dueñas, is exactly the kind of prospect he and El Salvador will be looking for. Veteran of the Ajax and Vitesse academies and eligible by his lineage to play for four countries – the Netherlands, where he was born, but also El Salvador, Finland and Curaçao – Dueñas was discovered by Alvarado through the sister of the player, whom he later met while methodically browsing a list of Dueñas’ Facebook friends.

Responsive on the approach, Dueñas made his competitive debut for El Salvador in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico in March, and he was included in Pérez’s roster for the first three World Cup qualifiers.

On Sunday he arrived in El Salvador for the first time.

For Alvarado, Dueñas and another player he identified long ago, the uncapped Costa Rican import Cristian Martinez, have created the kind of buzz he coveted when he first created his website.

But they also rekindle memories of how her father spoke of El Salvador’s glory days in 1982 and 1970, before civil war dispersed the country’s citizens to seek safety around the world. Now he’s trying to bring back at least a few.

“I firmly believe that we have the talent to put a team in the World Cup,” said Alvarado. “And I firmly believe that Salvadorians born abroad can get us there faster.”


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