Guatemala's Journey Back to Normalization

The Guatemalan people have almost forgotten the feeling of seeing their team play international football. In August 2018, in front of 17,000 fans in Guatemala City, the national team played its first international match after nearly two years of suspension.

It was a definite comeback. Guatemala beat Cuba easily 3-0, and three days later, they defeated them once again, this time 1-0. Los Chapines felt that they are back on track and starting their journey. Their only mission is returning to the main stage of football in CONCACAF.

 Guatemala was suspended by FIFA in 2016 due to allegations of corruption. For a long time, the issue was ignored, until FIFA appointed a normalization committee and lifted the ban. Meanwhile, CONCACAF teams played at the Nations League qualifiers. Guatemala missed the chance to play for a berth in one of the top leagues, so CONCACAF decided to place them automatically in the lower level, League C.

It means that Guatemala, which ranked 8th according to CONCACAF ranking, is playing alongside the weakest teams of the continent. Among the 13 participating teams, four teams hold only affiliate status, and therefore they are not full FIFA members.

Last March, Guatemala was drawn to a group with Puerto Rico and Anguilla. Their opening match was on Thursday, and Rodrigo Saravia, one of the leading players of the national team, actually didn't know what to expect. "We don't know that team, Anguilla," said Saravia, "we believe that they are at the same level as the Dominican Republic."

 Although the opponents are unknown, Saravia expressed that Guatemala is not going to underrate the importance of these matches for his teammates. "We know that the whole nation is behind us. We are proud to wear the national colours again and to get back to international competitions." Saravia had the chance to make his debut for the national team during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, but many players debuted only during the last months in friendly matches.

The support that Saravia talked about was felt against Anguilla. Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores was full again, and everyone wanted to see the national team win. They didn't found it difficult, as the difference between the teams was enormous. Guatemala won 10-0. Edi Guerra, who scored only one international goal before that match, netted four against the inferior opponents.

The win was impressive, but suddenly the fans felt that something is wrong. While Guatemala had some excellent results against better teams in friendly matches, the national team need to play now against weaker teams. Many comments pointed the same issue – don't get too excited after a win against a team like Anguilla.

 Behind the scenes, the national team knows that they have one main goal – to finish in the first place of the group. It will take Guatemala to the League B of the Nations League, where they a more challenging scene and will play against equal rivals.

Finishing first will lead to another precious prize, a spot in the 2021 Gold Cup playoffs. The qualifying system to the continental championship was changed, and the first-placed teams in League C will have a chance to qualify if they will defeat two opponents. Guatemala may be the strongest team in this level, and will thus have an opportunity to return to the Gold Cup after missing the last two tournaments due to the suspension.

It will be an exciting challenge. The Nations League matches may act as a warm-up to the next missions in the Gold Cup playoffs and the World Cup qualifiers. The real question is, will Guatemala get over the lack of experience, and will the players perform well against stronger teams as well?