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The San Diego Union-Tribune

 
As World Cup soccer coach, Mork's gotta Belize

STAFF WRITER

June 11, 2008

The under-13 boys team at the Sonoma County Alliance Soccer Club is without its coach for two months.

He's busy preparing for World Cup qualifying.

Ian Mork is an unassuming guy from Wichita, Kan., whose playing career consisted of stops at the University of Southern Colorado, Johnson County (Kan.) Community College and what was then called Sangamon State (now the University of Illinois-Springfield), followed by a few games with the indoor Wichita Wings. On Sunday, he'll be at Reliant Stadium in Houston for Mexico's opening qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.

Mexico plays a two-game series against the tiny Central American nation of Belize. Mork, 36, is Belize's national coach.

“I had a lot of things going on in Northern California,” says Mork, who coaches other youth teams and a few years ago was an assistant at Sonoma State. “But once I had this opportunity, I came here. I couldn't pass this up.”

Wichita to Belize. You don't hear that very often, not even in the wacky world of international soccer.

Belize opened qualifying earlier this year, beating Caribbean island nation St. Kitts and Nevis in a preliminary round under Guatemalan coach Jose Palmiro Salas. But Salas was unable to travel to St. Kitts for the second leg – something about being denied a U.S. visa when the team flew through Miami.

Belize drew Mexico in the next round and, because its home stadium does not meet FIFA's international standards, “sold” its home game to a promotion company that moved it to Reliant Stadium, where a crowd of 40,000 is expected. Figuring it might be a good idea to have a head coach who could actually get into the country, Belize dumped Salas.

There wasn't much debate about whom to call next. Hello, Ian?

Mork's roommate at Sangamon State was Rene Montero, who happened to be from Belize. After washing out with the Wichita Wings and not wanting to give up on his playing career, Mork decided to try again in Costa Rica.

“I called Rene and said, 'Maybe I can visit you and your family on my way down there,' ” Mork says. “He said, 'Forget about that. Just come to Belize and we'll set you up here.' ”

At 28, Mork became a player/coach for a local club. It won the national title and qualified for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and he was named coach of the year. In 2004 he became the federation's technical director and coached its youth national teams. When the under-21s beat El Salvador 2-0 in the Central American Games, it was the first time Belize had won a game in a sanctioned international competition.

Mork returned to California in August 2006. Now he's back in Belize, on a two-month contract as interim coach for the match in Houston and the return qualifier June 21 in Monterrey, Mexico.

That's Mexico, population 110 million, vs. Belize, population .3 million.

“Let me put it to you this way,” Mork says. “What's the salary of the lowest-paid player for Mexico? He's probably making more than our whole team. We have a few professional players, and a lot of amateur players. A lot of them have jobs. Some of them are students. And they're taking on millionaires.”

Four years ago, Mexico faced the Caribbean island of Dominica in a two-leg series in qualifying. Ten-oh and 8-0.

It's a fair question: Is Belize petrified of what might happen?

“If you approach a game with that mentality, you're going to be in trouble,” Mork says. “Our players have a lot of belief in themselves and each other. They're definitely competitors. They want to win. They don't have it in them to just go and participate.

“The way we're looking at it is it's 11 vs. 11, and on any given day anyone can win. That's what is beautiful about football.”

Mork has coached most of his current roster at some juncture, either at the club level or on a youth national team. The team has been training on and off for six weeks. Mork had friends in Southern California attend Mexico's 4-1 loss to Argentina at Qualcomm Stadium and help formulate a game plan for Sunday.

Belize is the size of Massachusetts, tucked beneath Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and it didn't gain independence from British colonial rule until 1981. Its Latin motto: “Sub Umbra Floreo.”

Under the Shade I Flourish.

“We have some talented players,” Mork says. “Are we world-beaters yet? I don't know, but I do know this much: Our day will come.”


Mark Zeigler: (619) 293-2205; mark.zeigler@uniontrib.com

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