Nicaragua improves and impresses at Copa
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- On Tuesday, the Nicaraguan national team will play its final match in the group phase of the 2013 UNCAF Copa Centroamericana. This time around, however, the end of the group phase doesn't necessarily mean the end of the road for the Pinoleros, as had regularly been the case for many years in the recent past.

Nicaragua, under the guidance of Spanish coach Enrique Llena, has been convincing with its performances thus far in San Jose, tying Guatemala in its debut before going down swinging, 2-0, to host Costa Rica on Sunday night.

Not long ago, little was expected in UNCAF competition from a country whose primary sport had always been baseball. But thanks to integral, top-down work from the Directors to the youth levels, the growth of Nicaraguan football has been impressive.

"We're not looked at like we used to be," said David Solorzano, the team's captain in Costa Rica. "All the teams now know that Nicaraguan football has taken off. We can prove it by qualifying [for the semifinals], we still have a chance."

Success at an UNCAF competition wouldn't be completely unprecedented for Nicaragua. In 2009, the Pinoleros surprised even themselves by knocking off Guatemala in the fifth place match, qualifying for the first time to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

This year, the team is out for even more. Nicaragua is currently tied for third in Group A with Belize, just one point behind second-place Guatemala. Costa Rica, already qualified for the semifinals, takes on Guatemala in the late game on Tuesday, while Nicaragua plays Belize in an encounter that - unexpectedly - could determine a ticket to the 2013 Gold Cup.

"It's very hard to score on Belize," said Llena. "Costa Rica could only score once, Guatemala couldn't do it. It's very complicated, but well, we have the weapons to do it."

If Nicaragua beats Belize, and Guatemala fails to defeat Costa Rica, the Pinoleros would advance to the UNCAF semifinals and earn a direct ticket to this year's Gold Cup.

That would be the result of a lot of hard work by many people, Llena says.

"First, the result of the work of the man who was the President of the Federation, Don Julio Rocha," the coach explained. "He was able to build a national stadium, when the field we had before weren't adequate. With him we also got another Project Goal, with departmental projects; I think there are eleven or twelve departments with their own projects.

"There, we're working with boys down to ten years old, and we want to work with even younger ages. I could also speak about this team, about tactical work, and I think we're working on all those points and that's why we're getting better."

On Tuesday at the National Stadium, Nicaragua will have one more opportunity to confirm that improvement, and its permanent arrival on the competitive Central American football scene.

Regardless of the result against Belize, though, it's obvious that the work done over the last few years means that Nicaragua will never again be looked at as a primarily baseball playing nation.