GALAXY: Adoring Hondurans stun L.A.
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The gathering that greeted the Galaxy upon its return Thursday night to the Marriott Tegucigalpa, following their stirring CONCACAF Champions League triumph over Motagua, couldn't have been warmer -- or more spirited -- had the clash taken place in Carson.
Hundreds of fans crowded into the hotel lobby and onto the staircase leading to the second floor, where the team would dine, to greet the players, shrieking when they came into view as if it were 1964 and John, Paul, George and Ringo were on hand.
Heavy police security, complete with ubiquitous machine guns, held the crowd at bay. Most wanted a picture with David Beckham or perhaps his autograph, if that were possible, and it wasn't -- so they chanted his name, and when he stopped by to give them a wave after finishing his meal, the screams carried deep into the hotel's corridors and out the door, onto the street and into the rather upscale neighborhood.
It was the wildest response Honduras' capital had for its visitors, and it might have stunned the Galaxy's more experienced travelers, who know that any trek to Central America isn't complete without jeers, whistles, chants that can't be printed here and thrown objects, some of them nastier than you might imagine.
A month earlier in Costa Rica, Beckham and Co. were greeted warmly at the hotel, applauded when they took the field for warmups before their game against Alajuelense, then lambasted by a crowd of about 16,000 that sounded and felt far, far bigger.
On the eve of this trip, captain Landon Donovan noted that “we're going in with the expectation that it's going to be full, it's going to be loud, it's going to be relatively hostile.”
Not even close.
The Galaxy was treated like the home team from arrival until departure, saluted by dignitaries -- many of them lined up, with their children, outside L.A.'s locker room following the 1-0 victory that clinched the Group A title in the regional club championship and secured a berth in next year's quarterfinals.
“I've always been a big fan of the Honduran people. I think they've always been respectful,” Donovan said as his teammates dined, amid screams a few yards away. “[The reception here] shows you, one, how famous David is, again. And it's been nice.
“I think we expected the worst, and we kind of got the best.”
Beckham's presence, of course, is key. He might be the world's biggest celebrity, and the Hondurans were awed and immensely grateful that he was visiting their country, their capital.
The scenes were similar in Costa Rica, especially with fans lined up in the hotel lobby and on the path to the team bus before the day-before-game training session in the stadium and as L.A. departed for the game, a 1-0 loss to Alajuelense.
The crowd was bigger, louder, more overwhelming in Tegucigalpa. The heavily armed gendarmes and Beckham's security crew were no match for some fans, mostly teenage girls and young women, who surged toward their idol Wednesday night.
Some stars would just walk past without a glance, but that's not Beckham, who stopped, posed for photos and signed his name a few times before he was shepherded toward the bus. The experience was so intense that the Galaxy exited through the back of the hotel, through service corridors, down a tiny elevator and out an unmarked door on a side street on game day. They returned the same way, so the fans in the lobby and on the stairs could only catch glimpses of Beckham and his teammates.
That seemed enough.
The response at Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino was as impressive. The shrieking began the second he emerged from the underground tunnel onto the field for warmups, and he was cheered every time he touched the ball. When he ventured close to the stands -- to take corner kicks, for instance -- squeals from nearby sections filled the facility.
At game's end, he tossed his jersey into the crowd, to a 15-year-old girl. The suites-side of the stadium surged forward, and only fortune prevented fans from being trampled underfoot.
The hallways next to the locker rooms were supposed to be clear after the game. The mixed zone, where the media conducts interviews with players and coaches, was next to L.A.'s space. There were dozens of armed police, most in military garb, and it had zero impact.
A mob of dignitaries -- key figures from Honduras' Congress, the U.S. embassy and the presidential palace, which sits next door to the hotel -- well-connected fans and media caught up in the excitement descended on Beckham as he walked out with his security crew, and his attempt to speak to the television cameras was cut short by the crush, after just a few words thanking the Hondurans “for their affection.”
The tunnel back to the field, where the Galaxy's bus awaited, was nearly impassable. Beckham and his security crew -- plus several teammates -- had to fight through the scrum as police struggled to hold everyone else back.
Beckham posed for more photos once he got to the bus, where more connected fans awaited, and the scene outside the stadium as the bus rolled onto the narrow street and started toward the hotel stood in great contrast to the same scene in Alajuela, where fans gawked -- and some made sure to let the Galaxy players know that their club was superior.
Tegucigalpa, like Carson, is a two-club town (with the teams sharing the stadium), but the intensity for these clubs -- Motagua and Olimpia -- is something wholly different, even with attendances down in great part because of the wave of crime and violence that has swarmed the country. Not everyone in the stadium was a Motagua fan, although most were.
Some were Americans studying or traveling abroad or, at least one young man rooting for Motagua, working in the Peace Corps -- his favorite team: D.C. United; second-favorite: whoever's playing the Galaxy. Others were supporters of Olimpia, which means they were hardcore Galaxy fans for the night.
As our driver on a trip to the lovely hillside town of Santa Lucia the afternoon before the game -- an Olimpia fan -- made clear: “I want the Galaxy to win, 10-0,” he said. “Then I will be happy.”
L.A. couldn't quite dial up those numbers, but it got a big goal from Juninho, superb defending across the massive field and a huge defensive play at the end by Frankie Hejduk. The 1-0 scoreline sufficed.
Even the Motagua fans were cheering Beckham and his teammates as they walked from the field. Then the mob scene, the bus ride, and a hotel reception that had players in disbelief.
Beckham on Friday mused that it had seemed like the Galaxy was the home team, and that that was quite extraordinary.
“It's been a really good trip -- we've been treated really well by the people here and been looked after well,” he said at the hotel Friday night. “We want to thank them as a country and as a city, because the reception was a great atmosphere, [and] it makes it even more special when you go home with three points.”