Estadio Cuscatlán, SAN SALVADOR — On a sticky night in a half-empty stadium, El Salvador centreback Roberto Dominguez slides through a 59th-minute tackle on Canadian winger Junior Hoilett to half-hearted cheers from the Salvadorian faithful. Dominguez and Hoilett square off throughout the night’s World Cup qualifier, as they would any night in their respective leagues, but their worlds could not be more different.
For the 18 year-old Dominguez, earning his third senior-level cap tonight against Canada, this is an opportunity; a way out of a country riddled by violence and corruption, the latter no more obvious in Salvadorian society than with the country’s football association. Dominguez — one of six under-23 players hurried into the Salvadorian XI on the evening — recently secured a move to reining domestic league champions Santa Tecla. At a top-flight club, he will be lucky to earn more than $15,000 as a regular.
With the attention of North American football executives on San Salvador for a rare moment, and Dominguez forced into senior team duty because of a long-running feud between his country’s corrupt football association and some of its top players, tonight is his chance. Battling the former English Premier League winger Hoilett, tonight is Dominguez’s chance to earn a guaranteed contract somewhere beyond his own troubled nation’s borders.
Junior Hoilett spent nearly five years waffling back and forth between wanting to represent Canada or Jamaica before finally committing to the Canadian national side in September of 2015. Having played professionally in Europe since February 2008, he did not need international exposure to leave a corruption-ridden league the way Dominguez does.
Hoilett was assured of a spot in Canada’s XI the instant he declared for Les Rouges, based off of what he had done in the English Premier League with Blackburn Rovers and, later, Queen’s Park Rangers.
The 25 year-old Canadian has only known first-class travel, high-end money, and safe away matches.
Look at the dugouts, there, along the camera side of the pitch. Gesticulating wildly in front of the Guatemalan bench is a stocky man wearing a dress shirt, suit jacket, and jeans.
61 year-old Ramon Maradiaga, the old warhorse in charge of the dumpster fire that is the El Salvador national team, has seen everything. A Honduran with an appearance as a player at the 1982 World Cup, Maradiaga has had to cobble together this glorified under-23 team in the midst of a civil war in Salvadorian football.
His opposite number, Canadian manager Benito Floro, stands regally with his six-figure salary a few metres away from him. The Spaniard once led Real Madrid in the mid-90s.
A 2013 investigation by the Salvadoran FA — the same FA which owns a proud history of shortchanging its players over international bonuses and appearance fees— resulted in lifetime bans for fourteen national team members charged with match-fixing.
The Salvadoran FA stripped its own national team of 596 international caps of experience, opting to rush a promising generation of under-20 players into the senior spotlight.
The inner power struggle within Salvadoran football, and society as a whole, had long threatened to destabilize the little pride fans had in their national team. Now, on a balmy night in San Salvador, a half-empty stadium echoes with cheers, jeers, and everything in between as a group of largely under-23s and senior-team backups attempt to salvage a shred of their country’s pride.
The 18 year-old Dominguez shows well, the expressive 61 year-old Maradiaga pulls the right tactical strings, and a rag-tag Salvadoran side composed of rushed prospects and senior-team backups manages to draw perennial underachievers Canada nil-nil.
The undersized crowd in the capital cheers good-naturedly throughout the night, but there is a sense that this night should be so much more. Some of the country’s top players — Richard Menjivar, Darwin Ceren, etc. — aren’t even on the bench, their absences rumoured to be compensation-related.
Canada’s charter jet will ease off the tarmac sometime tonight or tomorrow morning, its squad members ready to head back to clubs with guaranteed wages and proper travel.
Two worlds collided on a pitch in San Salvador. Canada returned to a world of comfortable professionalism, while its hosts were left to grapple with the ongoing unrest amongst their footballing community.