Juan Barrera still remembers proving them wrong.
To be fair to the doubters, it seemed pretty unlikely. Nicaragua had qualified for the Gold Cup just once before and needed three goals to clinch passage after falling 2-1 to Haiti in the first leg of a playoff. After 80 minutes Nicaragua still hadn't found an opener, despite support from a vibrant crowd at Managua's Estadio Nacional.
But Barrera still believed. He scored from the spot in the 82nd minute and followed up the opener with goals in the 86th and 88th minute to complete a six-minute hat trick and put Los Pinoleros into the continental championship once again.
"I have a great memory of this game against Haiti," Barrera told Goal this week. "The stadium was full, a lot of people didn’t believe we were going to be able to come back. Thanks to God we were able to achieve our goal of making the Gold Cup. Now in the Gold Cup it hasn’t been as good as we hoped. We’ve always wanted to get points but sometimes it isn’t there for you. We’re a young national team, but we can’t hang our head."
A jubilant celebration and involvement in a subsequent skirmish meant Barrera was suspended for the first Gold Cup group game. He watched on for what he called the hardest 90 minutes of his life as Nicaragua once again failed to get its first ever Gold Cup victory.
Even before that historic hat trick, Barrera was something of Nicaraguan soccer royalty. Now playing for Comunicaciones in Guatemala, Barrera moved from Real Estelí to Austrian side Rheindorf Altach in 2015. The transfer made him the first Nicaraguan player to move from the domestic league to a European club, and while he wasn't able to find success in Austria, he said the lessons he learned were a big benefit.
Even playing abroad within Central America, which he does now, puts the 28-year-old in elite company on the national team. Just five of the 23 players on Nicaragua's squad are based abroad – and that includes a player who is listed as playing for a Costa Rican second division team that went defunct and a naturalized Colombian. There's no doubt the country isn't known for its soccer pedigree, but Barrera is hoping that, despite the adverse results thus far with Henry Duarte's men losing to both Martinique and Panama, this tournament could be a springboard to even more wonderful moments for Nicaragua.
"Personally, I think it’s really important that us Nicaraguans show the beauty there is in Nicaraguan football, playing in other countries. I think we can show it in the national team as well," he said. "When the national team does things well, a lot of people take a look at what’s happening. Nicaragua is a country where people want to know what’s happening. From there, personally, I want to continue playing outside the country. I think this is really important not just for me but for a lot of my teammates in this Gold Cup might be able to be seen by other countries."
Getting kids to play the sport in general is hard enough with baseball and boxing capturing the attention of most children. Barrera himself was nudged toward basketball by his hoops-loving father but fell in love with soccer while living in Costa Rica. Barrera is Nicaraguan to the core but spent a decade of his youth in Costa Rica and said the people's passion for the sport helped fuel his own love of the game.
Now he wants to help serve as an example, even if one success story isn't enough. Real Esteli, a frequent title-winner in the Nicaraguan league and Barrera's first club, established an academy with others in the country following suit in an attempt to bring up a generation of players who love the game like the captain.
That won't catapult soccer to the forefront of the national conscious, and there's a long way to go before NIcaragua even matches up with neighbors Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras. But the winger sees it as a start. Still, it also will take organization at the federation level that is lacking at the moment.
"I think Nicaragua is going to keep getting better little by little, but the truth is there’s a lot of difficulties between infrastructure, support, we might not have this bonus for the national team in terms of structure and administration," Barrera said. "But there’s talent!
"There’s talent in Nicaragua and I think players are going to start leaving the country and show that Nicaragua now plays football, now can compete at a high level and we have hope in the future generations that already are starting."
Nicaragua has won just one game at a top-level continental championship – a 1967 CONCACAF Championship victory over Honduras during the round robin phase – and is unlikely to change that Saturday against the United States. Still, Barrera is eager to get on the field.
"The game against the United States is going to be a great game," Barrera said. "We’ve never faced the United States. Right now we’re keeping a positive mentality and we’re going to go out and play like we do in every game, and play until the end."
Turning the tide at the very last minute served Barrera and Nicaragua well earlier this year. He'll hope to hand the United States an enormous shock Saturday and once again stun the doubters.