SYDNEY (AP) Jorge Luis Pinto has accused Australia of a clumsy espionage attempt after a drone hovered over his Honduras squad’s practice session ahead of the return leg of their World Cup playoff.
The first leg last Friday ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving a spot at next year’s World Cup at stake Wednesday at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
The Australian squad flew directly home from Honduras on a charter flight brimming with rehabilitation equipment for the players and landed on Sunday, a day ahead of Pinto’s squad.
The Hondurans were upset when officials saw a drone flying over their practice session late Monday, and posted a video of the drone on the team’s Twitter account with the message: “Selection of Honduras upset by Australian espionage with a Drone.”
Pinto didn’t back away from the claims at his match-eve news conference, saying he didn’t accept the explanation from stadium staff that it was an accidental case of a father and his child playing with the drone in a nearby park.
“Let’s not be innocent. It’s espionage in football,” Pinto said. “Just like VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has made it into football, drones have made their way into espionage.
“It just takes some of the merit away from the fair play and the sporting event that will be held tomorrow.”
Pinto said it was “embarrassing for such an advanced country” and added that the Socceroos had checked “every bathroom, every box at the stadiums where they trained” in San Pedro Sula to ensure there was no spying on their own sessions.
Football Federation Australia said it had nothing to do with the drone.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said he wasn’t getting distracted by the claims, and was focused only on getting the Socceroos to a fourth consecutive World Cup.
“There was a fair bit of drama around the first game, but we stayed well out of it,” Postecoglou said. “Ultimately, it’s all pretty irrelevant when the game kicks off tomorrow night. It’s all about those 90 minutes and anything said beforehand is meaningless.”
It has been a long campaign for both squads. Australia went through the last round of Asian qualifying with just one loss from 10 games, yet still missed out on one of the four direct entries to Russia on goals difference.
A lack of finish in front of the goals was evident again in the Asian playoff against Syria, which the Australians won courtesy of Tim Cahill’s two goals in Sydney to reach the intercontinental playoff.
Honduras finished fourth in qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean, securing a spot in the playoff at the expense of the U.S.
Australia failed to convert two clear chances to score in San Pedro Sula last Friday, but Postecoglou said he was content to come back to Australia on level terms. Cahill, who didn’t play in the first game because of an ankle injury, is fit and ready for selection, and Mark Milligan and Matt Leckie are available again after being suspended for the series opener.
Postecoglou has foreshadowed changes for the return match and so has Pinto, saying there could be up to three changes for Honduras with veteran skipper Maynor Figueroa and pacy winger Alberth Elis coming back.
Pinto said Figueroa would add some field presence and composure to his team, and Elis could create space out wide.
The Honduras coach didn’t elaborate too much further on what tactics he’d use, but had a tongue-in-cheek poke at Postecoglou on the theme of surveillance.
“Without a doubt we’ll be employing long balls tomorrow,” he said. “So if the head coach of Australia is watching this press conference he has some insight into the game!”
The Sydney news conference was broadcast on TV in Honduras, and Pinto was asked if he had a message for the team’s fans.
“Just as we faced situations against Mexico and El Salvador, which were tough, we always made it through,” he said. “Tomorrow is not going to be the exception. We’ll make it through.”