Saturday 01 May 2021, 08:24

Guatemala coach De Leon's long and winding road to the top

  • Guatemala will host the Concacaf qualifiers for Lithuania 2021

  • Regional competition runs from 3 to 9 May

  • Guatemala coach Estuardo de Leon optimistic about their chances

When he was growing up in Zona 18, one of Guatemala City’s toughest neighbourhoods, Estuardo de Leon had two paths to choose. The first was the easier: a life of drugs, violence and easy money, which is something he could have done with at the time, his family being poor.

The second was much more uncertain, would take much longer and would not bring him a lot of money. But that second path was the one that he chose. “Football really helped me take my life forward,” De Leon told in an exclusive interview. “My neighbourhood was a place, like so many others in the world, where it was easier to get caught up in a life of drugs and petty crime than have a sporting career of any kind. I was lucky enough to live three blocks away from all the football pitches."

Such was De Leon’s desire to make his way in futsal and play for his country that he made some pretty big sacrifices, as he explained. “There were these private futsal courts that were built in 1998 and a couple of years later Fernando Ferretti [Guatemala’s Brazilian futsal coach at the time] asked me if I wanted to take part in some trials he was organising ahead of the World Cup, which the country was hosting later that year.

“I’d stopped playing for about a month or so because there were so many players in contention and I was doing a degree in PE/Sports as well. I wanted to finish it on time, so I stopped training. But then I met up with Coach Ferretti and he told me I had a great chance of making the squad. That was when I really started to fall in love with the game.”

The sacrifices did not stop there: “I always worked when I played, and in 2000 the training sessions were at night, so I taught from seven in the morning to three in the afternoon and then I went to the court and waited for training. Study, work and train – that was my routine.

“In 2008 I had to juggle a lot of things. I went to the gym at five in the morning and did an hour there. Then I was at school from seven to one and I went to another school in the afternoon to teach little kids from two to four. I’d also started to coach a second-division futsal team, so that was from 5:30 in the evening to 7:30. Then I’d go and train with the national team from eight at night to ten. And that was my entire 2008, the only year we managed to get out of the group phase at the World Cup.”

Solomon Islands v Guatemala: Group F - FIFA Futsal World Cup Thailand 2012

De Leon was the captain of a side that was going places. Since making their World Cup debut on home soil in 2000, they have only failed to qualify for the tournament once and have graced the last three.

“We made really rapid progress and we were lucky enough to have two great coaches along the way,” said De Leon. “In 2000, we had Fernando Ferretti, who has had a long association with the sport and taught us a lot. And in 2003, the Spanish coach Venancio Lopez took charge. He’s had a long career in world futsal, which also helped, as has playing in international competitions and coming up against top class teams like Brazil and Spain and the clubs from their leagues."

The man in charge

Though his playing days are behind him, De Leon’s love for and bond with futsal remains as strong as ever. It was a logical step for him to take over as coach of his beloved national team ahead of the Concacaf qualifiers for the FIFA Futsal World Cup Lithuania 2021™, which Guatemala will be hosting.

“I think Guatemala are in a really good place,” he added. “Just as we did in the last few qualifiers, I can see the boys making it to yet another World Cup. I think we can even make the final of the qualifying competition and win it."

De Leon will be passing on all his experience to his players in his first major test as coach: “I made a lot of mistakes when I was a player, the kind of mistakes that I’m able to anticipate now and tell the players about. I can also anticipate the kind of situations that crop up in matches so we can take control of them."

Having prepared Guatemala for their next World Cup qualification challenge, De Leon is keen to join Ferretti and Lopez in making his mark on the history of Guatemalan futsal. Unlike them, however, he learned his trade on the courts and streets of Guatemala and in its neighbourhoods.

Determined to achieve something big with the country he loves, he added: “I’d love for us to go down in history. We’ve got it in us and we’re ready for it too. We need to walk the walk now. We’ll see what happens in the tournament, but we’re going to have a shot at making history by qualifying and trying to go further at the World Cup than we’ve ever done before and make it past the group phase. I’m so excited about being able to do my bit for Guatemalan sport.”