It took just eight minutes for the first goal to go in – but in reality it had been a lot longer in coming than that.
After 709 days or nearly two years in the footballing wilderness, the Guatemalan mens’ national team announced their return from a FIFA corruption ban with a 3-0 victory over Cuba at the national stadium in Guatemala City on Wednesday night (August 15).
The crowd of more than 17,000 at the Estadio Doroteo Guamuch Flores, most of them decked out in the light blue and white colours of the ‘Azul y Blanco’ as the national team are known, erupted at José Márquez’s opening goal.
It was on September 6, 2016 that a Guatemalan mens’ national football team last took to the field after the sport’s world governing body banned them from all competition in the wake of a corruption scandal at the very top of the country’s national football federation.
But all that melted away in the celebratory atmosphere of a comfortable home win, with fans indulging in Mexican waves and raising frequent shouts of ‘Guate!’, their country’s abbreviated name.
Guatemala’s ban was imposed in October 2016 after a drawn-out wrangle with FIFA over corruption among leading figures in Guatemalan football.
First Brayan Jimenez, former president of the Guatemalan national football federation (known as Fedefut, thanks to its Spanish initials) was arrested in December 2015 on corruption charges.
He and Hector Trujillo, a former judge and secretary general of Fedefut, were accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from a US media company for the rights to market and transmit World Cup qualifying matches, as reported by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre.
In October last year Trujillo was sentenced to eight months in prison in a hearing at federal court in Brooklyn in the US having previously pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and conspiracy.
Judge Pamela Chen also ordered him to pay $415,000 in restitution over the $175,000 he had pocketed.
Jimenez is to be sentenced next month by the same judge having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit electronic fraud over $400,000 in bribes allegedly paid to him, Trujillo and another Guatemalan football official, Rafael Salguero.
Amidst all this the refusal by another Guatemalan sporting body, the Autonomous Sporting Confederation of Guatemala, to accept new anti-corruption statues FIFA had proposed for Fedefut, was the move that sealed the ban in October 2016.
Only in May this year when Fedefut finally agreed to submit to being run by a FIFA ‘normalisation committee’ until at least May 2019, was the ban lifted.
The saga has left some bitterness among Guatemalan fans towards FIFA, an organisation not known for its probity in recent years.
Armando Mazariegos, 39, a university professor from Guatemala City, said before Wednesday night’s game: “We are not a very important country for FIFA so they wanted to make an example of us – ‘Guatemala we can punish to make a point to the world’, but the big countries are still in some way untouchable.”
But most fans seemed to feel the punishment was justified and there had been – and even continues to be – corruption in Guatemalan football, as there is across many other parts of society in this beautiful but troubled country.
Monica Figueroa, an architect, said: “I feel there’s a lot of corruption in Guatemalan football and our best sportsmen have not been able to play.
“Unfortunately the sport is not very transparent and clean.
“I think the punishment was fair. There’s been a lot of corruption and still there is, for sure.
“But imagine it coming from FIFA – and we’re even worse!”
Andrés Heredia, a 36-year-old publicist who correctly predicted Guatemala would win 3-0, added: “There’s a lot of corruption in the country and a lot of things that aren’t good.
“But football is a sport that unites people and unites the world and for us we’re very happy to be here today.
“I believe the ban was fair for the corruption and those who are corrupt should be punished but the players themselves don’t deserve it.
“Unfortunately it’s all a chain linked to other things.”
But the final word was one of joy at finally being back in the game.
Speaking after the match, college student Ivan Flores, 18, said: “I’m happy and content because it’s been two years since the team played in that stadium and I’m very moved as well by the support for Guatemala.
“I think the ban was harsh but I’m glad it’s been lifted and we played so well. I think the mentality of the team was great and I really enjoyed the game.
“It’s been a spectacular night and very important for the country.”