Central America’s World Cup

Central America’s World Cup

A tsunami of noise hits you, as you enter the Miami Marlins Baseball Stadium. Wave after wave of decibels wash over you, as the excited fans shout encouragement in Spanish, bang tambourines, play trumpets, dance, and generally enjoy being part of a global sporting event. Similar scenes can be found at any international tournament, but look a bit closer and one sees that the World Baseball Classic is different, very different to your normal World Cup. There are fans, thousands of them, bearing the vibrant colours of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.Volunteer sports journalist Brian Salmon is on-site and explains in this article how this special tournament and The World Games have enabled athletes from the region of Central America to make their mark on the international stage.

These are countries you barely ever see participate in the FIFA Football World Cup, nor the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Athletes from these nations hardly ever make it onto Olympic podiums. Collectively, the nations of Central America, have not had very much success in international sports. Yet every fan lucky enough to be in Miami, and the millions more watching avidly from home, will be convinced that this is their moment, that their country has the athletes who are potential World Champions. This is not a delusional belief; it genuinely could happen! Unlike many other tournaments in World sport, this is a championship where Central American nations can, and do, excel. The World Baseball Classic is a top international competition sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation. In the four editions played so far, there has been at least one Central American nation in every final bar 2009. In 2013, the Dominican Republic became the first nation from the region entitled to call themselves World Champions! The Central American countries know it is virtually impossible for them to win a football World Cup - Cuba, Costa Rica and Colombia are the only teams to have played a quarter final match. Success in basketball is equally unlikely, the sole semi final appearances of Cuba and Puerto Rico were decades ago. Therefore for the long suffering sports fans of Central America, the World Baseball Classic is truly their World Cup! Let’s examine how this special tournament and The World Games have enabled athletes from the region to make their mark on the international stage.

The Dominican Republic has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup, but their basketball team has qualified for the FIBA World Cup on several occasions, with a best finish of 16th. They have done well at the Olympics winning medals in a number of sports but have yet to find a speciality at The World Games. Karate star Maria DIMITROVA, whose Bulgarian parents emigrated to the Dominican Republic, is the only athlete from the island to medal at The World Games, picking up a silver in 2009. However, when it comes to Baseball, they can compete with the best. In the World Baseball Classic, they have beaten the USA twice. In 2013, they made history by becoming the first Central American team to win the Classic, becoming the only unbeaten Championship team in the four editions it has been played.

Unlike many nations in Central America, Puerto Rico have a superb sporting pedigree. They have a talent for basketball, qualifying for all but a handful of World Cups, even making a semi final appearance in 1990. There have been plenty of memorable Olympic moments from their boxers, hurdlers, and tennis players. The Puerto Ricans have participated in the last two editions of The World Games, and in Birmingham, their men's doubles bowling team made a valiant attempt in the bronze medal match, taking the first frame, but were unable to maintain their accuracy in the next two. It is in the World Baseball Classic, where they have shone the brightest. In the 2013 semi final, they became the first team to prevent Japan from claiming the title, and have beaten the USA on three occasions; but sadly, not those particular opponents in the game that mattered, the 2017 final. That defeat particularly hurt, because they had also been runners up to the Dominican Republic four years earlier.

Cuba has only ever had one athlete at The World Games: Adriana CANTILLO TUNDIDOR competed in speedskating, but they have had incredible success at the Olympics, being only behind the USA in the region. During the five consecutive editions of the Olympics in which Baseball was featured - before being dropped for London 2012 - Cuba appeared in all five finals, winning gold three times! Cuba also were the runners up in the first ever edition of the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

Despite its large population and love of sport, Mexico has struggled to make a bigger impact on the international stage. Their football team has famously never won a knockout match in the World Cup. In the Olympics, they have become increasingly uncompetitive. They finished 17th in the medal table at the 1984 Olympics, but by Tokyo 2020 they could only rank 84th with a paltry four bronze medals. They have played a couple of memorable games at the World Baseball Classic, beating the USA in both 2006 and 2013, but have never featured in a Championship game, with their best finish being sixth. At The World Games however they are a rising force, the Birmingham 2022 edition represented their best ever performance; their 12 medals included five of the golden variety. Two Miguels did so well; Miguel BECERRA winning a tense Compound Archery final and Miguel MARTINEZ ACEVES looking much more comfortable in the Kickboxing competition, winning all his bouts easily. In the women’s Flag Football, the Mexican team had the meanest defence by far, and led by inspirational quarterback Diana FLORES scored touchdowns for fun. Flores, deservedly, got the opportunity during the 2023 Super Bowl to explain the keys to Mexico’s triumph. Paola LONGORIA had been voted as one of The World Games Greatest Athletes. In Birmingham, she further confirmed her status as the best Racquetball player in history, with her third consecutive title.

Unlike their Central American neighbours, Panama has had the occasional Olympic moments to savour. Three medals in total with their sole gold coming in the long jump in Beijing. They have qualified for the basketball World Cup four times, and Russia 2018 was a historic first appearance at FIFA’s flagship event. Birmingham 2022 was the first time that Panama sent athletes to The World Games; all performed admirably, particularly their Women’s Flag Football team, who had to find room in their suitcases for the bronze medal. It is at Baseball that Panamanian athletes are most likely to be competitive. They have been involved in close games on their previous two appearances at the World Baseball Classic, however it was not until this year’s edition that they were able to experience the joyous elation of a win, beating both Chinese Taipei and Italy.

Nicaragua has never qualified for the World Cup finals in basketball or soccer, and have been unsuccessful in their Olympic medal quest. Pool player Karen Garcia is by default their most successful athlete at The World Games, being the only Nicaraguan to ever qualify, finishing 9th in Wroclaw 2017. Therefore, the fact that Nicaragua qualified for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, makes this year one to savour for their success starved sports fans!

Guatemala has never qualified for any World Cup in any team sport. Their racewalking silver medal at London 2012 represents their sole Olympic podium. They do boast one genuine superstar, racquetball player Ana Gabriela MARTINEZ, who made the final at the Birmingham edition of The World Games. However, it is always going to be difficult to defeat Paola Longoria the greatest racquetball player of all time, who won her third consecutive title. Therefore, bowler Sofia RODRIGUEZ who triumphed at The World Games way back in 2001 in Akita, Japan, remains the only Guatemalan to hear her national anthem at a global multi-sports event.

Ecuador had their most successful Olympics at Tokyo 2020, winning two golds and one silver. They struggle at team sports, rarely qualifying for anything, however speed skater Gabriela VARGAS SARMIENTO did them proud at The World Games, winning the country’s first ever medal (gold!) in the 10,000m point race and adding three third place finishes, to make her the most successful Ecuadorian athlete at any multi continental competition.

Roberto HERNANDEZ is unique in El Salvador sport, being the only athlete from his country ever to stand on a medal podium in a global event. El Salvador are one of the least successful countries in international sport; still to win a medal at the Olympics, and only a couple of appearances at the FIFA World Cup. So when Hernandez claimed bronze in the compound archery event at the Cali 2013 edition of The World Games, it was a major cause for celebration.

Costa Rica has made regular appearances in the most recent editions of the FIFA World Cup, even getting to the quarter finals at Brazil 2014. The tiny country has only ever won Olympics medals in swimming. Just one athlete from the Central American nation qualified for Wroclaw 2017, their first appearance at The World Games, but they sent a team of nine to Birmingham. There, Racquetball’s Andres Acunya Araya was almost perfect, losing just one set on his way to claiming Costa Rica’s first ever podium at The World Games, a historic gold for the small Central American country.

Do not mention the FIFA World Cup to fans from Venezuela, as they have never qualified. They fare better at basketball’s big tournament, qualifying on a regular basis for the most recent editions. The country loves the Olympics, winning medals in an impressive eight sports, with their boxers and track and field stars being particularly impressive. Two legends of The World Games have book-ended the two American editions. Water skier Anna Maria CARRASCO was the tenth highest medallist in the opening edition in Santa Clara, California, winning two gold medals. In Birmingham, Karate legend, Antonio DIAZ came out of retirement, for his sixth appearance at The World Games, sadly it was the first edition he was unable to make the podium. Venezuela has also had their moments at the World Baseball Classic, most notably in 2009, beating the Americans twice on their way to the semi final, where South Korea were too strong for them. This year, in Miami, they had a notable victory over pre-tournament favourites Dominican Republic, their first Classic win over these opponents in six attempts!

Though Venezuela and Colombia are geographically part of South America, their history and culture links them closer to the Central American nations. Looking at Colombia, they have a fine sporting pedigree, which is shown by regular appearances in the soccer World Cup. Basketball is not really a big thing, their sole appearance in the FIBA World Cup was in 1982. They regularly perform well in the Olympics, medalling in every edition from Sydney 2000; their athletes are particularly difficult to beat in weightlifting and cycling. At the second Olympics in Paris in 1900, Colombian Tug of War puller Francisco Henriquez de Zubiria became one of the first medallists from Latin America, as part of a mixed nationality team.

It is at The World Games where Colombia has really made their sporting mark. The 2013 edition in the picturesque city of Cali, means Colombia is, so far, the only Spanish speaking host of the quadrennial sports celebration. It was at Cali that Compound Archer Sara Lopez first impressed, winning the first of her record breaking four medals. The rule in roller Speed Skating, is that unless you are Bart Swings, it is virtually impossible to beat a Colombian athlete to the finish line! Pedro CAUSIL established the trend at his home Games, it was then continued by Fabriana ARIAS in Wroclaw and emphatically confirmed by Johana VIVEROS MONDRAGON in Birmingham. It was the Cali edition that also provided the most iconic image of The World Games. The mountainous city is the home of salsa dancing, so naturally the 16,000 seat bullring was sold out for the DanceSport Salsa Final. Colombian dancers Adriana AVILA and Jefferson Andres BENJUMEA MEROLANDA dazzled the raucous supporters, and most importantly the judges, to create a timeless moment. This is the importance for both the World Baseball Classic and The World Games, each major sport event gives otherwise unregarded athletes and nations alike rare opportunities to shine and bring elation to their success starved fans.

Brian Salmon for The World Games

 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN in 2025.