San Pedro Sula: The start of the mind games? Or just opportunistic advertising? As the Socceroos walked out of the tunnel at their Estadio Francisco Morazan training ground, they were confronted with the sight of a giant Honduras jersey that covered nearly an entire bay.
The interest around the Australian team only grew during its second training session in the industrial capital of San Pedro Sula, where the turn out from local fans and journalists swelled from the opening day. As the number of cameras doubled in the eastern grandstand, three days before their World Cup qualifying play-off against Honduras, a provocative banner was unveiled across the western seats.
A large-scale white jersey with the blue "H" of Honduras faced the players' tunnel, the coaches and staff's bench and the media. While the attention surrounding the Australians has made them appear instant rock stars in San Pedro Sula, it was a firm reminder of the true reason why the Socceroos are in Central America and find themselves in a two-legged game of roulette with Honduras.
Was it an attempt to intimidate the Socceroos? If so, it certainly went against the warm welcome and hospitality the Australians have received thus far. It was a bold declaration of support for the hosts at a venue reserved solely for the visitors this week as a banner usually reserved for match day supporters was flashed in the face of only the Socceroos. It will appear again at the Estadio Olimpico on match day - where Honduras will train all week - but then it may be lost in a sea of blue and white and a hostile wall of noise.
Boldly displayed on the front of the giant shirt was the Honduran national team's principal sponsor, a local financial institution. That perhaps explained the provocative publicity stunt for what is a drawcard attraction.
Just once in the past six years has a team from outside of the Central and North American regional football federation, CONCACAF, visited Honduras and Australia's arrival has created an air of mystery and excitement, bordering on hysteria. When no player was made available for interviews, the cameras flocked to Fox Sports commentator and former NSL player, Andy Harper. It even drew a rare loud chuckle from the notoriously stern coach, Ange Postecoglou.
It's a rare match for the Socceroos too, playing in Latin America. The team has left nothing to chance with a security detail that is understood to be unprecedented for a visiting team. La Prensa newspaper ran headlines labelling Australia as "Mute!", referring to them as "hermits" due to suggestions of over-reliance on police escorts, hushed airport arrivals and a hotel that's been turned into a compound in lockdown.
Those factors have only heightened the interest in the visiting national team. The locals' only chance to see the Socceroos is the daily hour-long training sessions. If the giant jersey was cashing in on the eyeballs, then so too are locals. In the block surrounding the stadium, counterfeit jerseys are being sold on street corners. Scalpers are standing on the side of the road waving tickets at commuters during rush-hour around the stadium precinct.
Perhaps most telling is the looming postponement of one of the biggest clashes in Honduran football - Real Espana against Motagua. That was scheduled to be played on Thursday night at Estadio Morazan but is set to be delayed due to the Socceroos' match against Honduras being held the next day.
Inside the training ground, the Australians gave no insight into the burning questions of line-ups and whether Tim Cahill will play. The veteran striker emerged from the tunnel only to do stretches before returning to work with the Socceroos' physio team. The players were put through possession drills that gave insight into how they will try to play through the lines and expose Honduras' defence.
The heat and humidity was less sapping than the opening day, but signs of fatigue from lengthy flights, as well as the climate, were noticeable for the European-based players. Normally expert ball players, Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy, made uncharacteristic heavy touches and stray passes, while new arrivals Matt Jurman, Massimo Luongo and Alex Gersbach looked on, trying to adjust to the taxing tropical climate. As they did, they looked at the mayhem in the stands to get a taste of the passion of Honduran football.