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


SAN SALVADOR – For more than a decade, Hugo Alvarado searched the Internet for football players who could improve the national teams of El Salvador. He was, he admits shamefully, pretty good at it.

Working with a home computer in California, he quickly identified dozens of members of the vast Salvadoran diaspora, players with Salvadoran names or Salvadoran-looking faces, and places on the lists of European professional clubs, MLS academy teams, and American college 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 Alvarad’s website.

There was always one difficulty: Alvarado did not work for the El Salvador Football Association. He did not have the authority to admit players to his national teams. He was just a fan who wanted better support teams.

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

Like last qualifying round for 2022 World Championship in Qatar starts this week in North and Central America, there has been a lot of talk about rebuilding the United States men’s team after failure to qualify for 2017. But his first opponent on Thursday, El Salvador, also has new leaders, a new coach and a new generation of great young talent. The reconstruction she has undertaken can be just as extensive.

El Salvador was the first Central American country to qualify for the 1970 World Cup, and the first to return to it for the second time, in 1982. large scandals and the inability – or unwillingness – to modernize. Quietly, all that can change.

Last fall, the El Salvador federation hired Diego Henríquez, a former youth national team player who played college football in the United States, as its first athletic director. Henríquez was first hired by Hugo Pérez, a respected former American football player and coach.

Their goal, initially, was to focus on supplying El Salvador youth teams with better players, from anywhere they could find them. A former United States player under 17 from Indiana with his Salvadoran father. A New York Red Bulls academic product with his mother Salvador. A professional in the Netherlands who actually had the right to perform for four countries, and he was already wearing the jersey of one of them. Even Pérez’s nephew, a former American football teammate Christian Pulisic, corresponds to the bill.

This kind of open-handed strategy is not unique — Italy, England, Spain, and many other countries have all overseas-born players — and Pérez knows the value of it like everyone else: Born in El Salvador, he played more than 70 times for the United States and represented country at the Olympics and the World Cup. He, like almost everyone else in Salvadoran football, heard about the detective work that Alvarado was doing.

“Bringing talent from different parts of the world could be a plan in any federation,” Henríquez said, noting that the United States has done so long ago, and Mexico has recently made an overture for players born and developed in America. “It’s part of restructuring our identity.”

Ambition, however, works best with a plan. Under Pérez and Henríquez, El Salvador has a holistic approach: top-notch workouts and training, but also improvements in diet, sleep and fitness and an emphasis on “what it means to represent Salvador, what it means to wear a national team jersey, what it means to come to camp and be a professional. ”

Early return promising: Hired to lead the youth teams, Henríquez and Pérez added responsibility for the senior team in April, after worrying results in the previous World Cup qualifying round led to a change of coach. Building around young players and new recruits, El Salvador advanced to the knockout round of this year’s Golden Cup, a major regional championship, and even gave Mexico brief fright before reaching the quarterfinals.

El Salvador has little illusions about the job ahead of it in World Cup qualifiers: the region gets just three and a half places in next year’s tournament from a qualifying octagon, and few expect La Selecta, as El Salvador is known, to win. The region’s national team, however, will grow with the World Cup expands to 48 teams in its next cycle.

“Our main goal is 2026,” Henríquez said. “We’re just getting started and we know it.”

Until then, some of the new players will be part of the plans, but also Alvarado. On the day he was hired last October, Henríquez told reporters he was open to “anyone who can help” Salvador improve. One of his first stops was a man in California with a home computer and a wealth of knowledge about the types of players that might be available. In October, Henriquez hired Alvarado as the first full-time scout in the history of the federation.

Henríquez said the plan was to improve Alvarado’s hobby and focus on finding not every potential Selecta player, but specific ones. Instead of a vacuum cleaner, he would essentially become a personal customer, with a shopping list for specific needs – supplementing the age group team, for example, or providing opportunities to watch in a certain position or in a certain role. He and Henríquez are still unsure how many talents might be available.

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

Alvarado’s latest discovery, 20-year-old midfielder Enrico Dueñas, is just such an opportunity he and El Salvador will be looking for. A veteran of Ajax and Vitesse Academy and according to his lineage he could play for four countries – the Netherlands, where he was born, but also El Salvador, Finland and Curaçao – Dueñas discovered Alvarado through the player’s sister, whom he met after methodically reviewing Dueñas’ Facebook friends list.

With respect for the approach, Dueñas made his debut for El Salvador in the qualifying tournament for the Olympic Games in Mexico in March, and is included in Pérez’s list for the first three World Cup qualifiers.

He arrived in El Salvador for the first time on Sunday.

For Alvarado, Dueñas and another player he identified long ago, unlimited imports from Costa Rica Cristian Martinez, created the kind of buzz he wanted when he first created his website.

But they also revive memories of how his father spoke of El Salvador’s glory days in 1982 and 1970, before the civil war sent the country’s citizens scattered for security around the world. Now he is trying to bring back at least a few of them.

“I firmly believe we have the talent to put the team on the World Cup,” Alvarado said. “And I firmly believe that Salvadorans born abroad can take us there faster.”

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