TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- For a few minutes on Friday night, Honduran interim president Roberto Micheletti sounded happy to be talking with a reporter about something other than the political crisis which has engulfed his country.
Micheletti is a soccer fan, and tonight in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran national team plays its most important game in 27 years, a World Cup qualifier against the United States. If Honduras wins, it will almost certainly clinch a World Cup berth for the first time since 1982. And Micheletti, for his part, thinks his Catrachos will do more than just win.
"Honduras 4, United States 0!" Micheletti told me in Spanish. "The heart of the Hondurans is bigger than ever!"
Micheletti has a lot on his plate these days. With mediation from the Organization of American States, his aides met this week with representatives of Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed as president on June 28. Zelaya snuck back into Honduras on Sept. 21 and has been holed up in the Brazilian embassy here ever since. No other countries, including the U.S., have recognized Micheletti's regime.
Even though no resolution to the standoff has been reached, Honduras will put aside politics for 90 minutes tonight to support their national team. "Soccer unites all Hondurans," Micheletti explained during our 10-minute conversation, "without distinction among classes, political parties, religion or race. Soccer brings everyone together."
"We still remember our national team from 1982, and we Hondurans all live with the dream of returning to the World Cup. Let's hope that God gives us the opportunity to achieve this goal, which we'd do by beating the Gringos and the Salvadorans [on Wednesday]."
A fan of two Honduran clubs (Real España and Motagua) who says he still plays soccer once or twice a year, Micheletti won't be at the stadium tonight, but he did say that he would be watching the game in his living room at home. "I have to watch at home because I scream a lot at the TV," he said.
The de facto president is no dummy: He knows that a Honduras win tonight will be good from him politically. But he also seemed to be a genuine fan, naming off several of his favorite Honduran players, including Carlos Pavón, Carlos Costly, David Suazo and Ramón Núñez, and he seemed more than a little bullish about tonight's game.
"We have players from international clubs on our team, and therefore we have a lot of confidence, hope and faith that we will achieve this victory," he told me. "But I want to wish both teams luck, that they play a clean game and that for a moment we can forget any sadness [in the country] and enjoy a great soccer game."
And if Honduras qualifies for the World Cup? "I'll call a national holiday," said Micheletti. "We are going to celebrate!"
Friday was an odd day for me. One moment I was speaking with the man who runs Honduras, and another moment I was being robbed at gunpoint in Tegucigalpa.
My idea had been to drive from San Pedro Sula about 150 miles southeast to the capital, stopping to interview people along the way about the significance of the Honduran soccer team's success during a time of deep divisions within the country.
And that's exactly what I did. I spoke to businessmen in San Pedro Sula, gas-station workers in Comayagua and even a clown that I encountered on the side of the road in a dusty town outside Tegucigalpa. (The man, whose nom de clown is Chiquitón, said he'd be watching the game. He also said that he clowns at birthday parties, Christmas celebrations and even funerals.)
Along the way I discovered that Honduras is a beautiful country, with forest-green mountains, gorgeous lakes and friendly people.
Except, perhaps, for one. On Friday afternoon, I ventured to the embassy district of Tegucigalpa, where hundreds of gun-toting police have surrounded the Brazilian embassy (and its occupant Zelaya). The police chief gave me the clearance to interview some soccer-loving police officers, whose scowls melted into smiles as they talked of getting a few hours off from work to watch USA-Honduras.
After we finished, I started walking back to my car, which I had parked a few blocks away in what appeared to be a safe part of town a stone's throw from the U.S. embassy. And then, in broad daylight, with hundreds of police officers only a couple hundred yards away, a 20-something male ran up behind me, pulled out a gun, and threatened to kill me if I didn't give him my things.
I've had experience working in some hairy situations -- from a week in Nigeria to a drive across Mexico, from a story near the Israeli-Lebanese border to a road-trip with hardcore soccer fans in Argentina -- but I had never been threatened with a gun before.
I gave him my wallet and iPhone, and thankfully he disappeared down the aptly named Avenida de Paz (Peace).
But I did survive, chastened and a bit embarrassed. Interim president Micheletti apologized for the robbery and said that it no doubt was a Zelaya supporter.
Check back before and during tonight's game to Grant Wahl's live commentary from San Pedro Sula on Twitter.