The last day of CONCACAF World Cup qualification was undoubtably dramatic as the fixtures came to a close. The night began with the possibility of either Mexico or Panama occupying the playoff spot for the region. With Panama taking on the United States, it was sure to be a difficult night for the small Central American team.
Panama has never qualified for the World Cup and was the only country in the hexagonal seeking their first qualification. With a defeat to Mexico against Costa Rica and a win at home to the U.S., their World Cup dreams could come true.
When Gabriel Torres scored the opening goal in the 18th minute, everyone in the country of 3.5 million were relying on neighbors Costa Rica to score. And that they did. Bryan Ruiz scored, and it all seemed likely to happen. Mexico quickly answered back with Oribe Peralta, but Alvaro Saborio gave the “Ticos” the lead once more.
Panama had the playoff spot served on the silver platter — they just needed to score. Michael Orozco scored in the 64th minute, meaning the Panamanians needed one more to seal the playoff spot. Their minds were set on attacking, and that they did. Veteran Luis Tejada came in as a substitute and the Veracruz striker was given several chances to score, but could not capitalize until the young Roberto Chen crossed it low into the penalty box for the experienced Tejada to shove the ball into the net.
The score was 2-1 in favor of the home side. and it meant they occupied the playoff spot. The fans went crazy and it seemed all to good to be true.
To good to be true would be an understatement as the players still had six minutes left in the game. The Panama side already had their mind set on their trip to New Zealand and not on finishing the game in front of them. This resulted in a Graham Zusi header equalizing the score in the second minute of stoppage time, silencing the crowd that had previously been uncontrollably celebrating.
The goal also replaced the Panama players’ statuses of wearing red jerseys and less than a minute later, Aron Johansson scored the United States’ third goal, completely crushing Panama’s World Cup ambitions into oblivion.
After the final whistle, the U.S. players lightly celebrated while the Panama national team either quickly walked off into the locker room or broke down into tears wherever they were standing. This campaign has been the closest the Central American country had ever been to qualifying.
The press in the country the following day expressed that it probably will not happen again for a long time to come, but there should be some hope as some of the younger players are making moves to Europe and should improve the standard in the country for upcoming years.
Alejandro de Jesús is a contributing football writer for Rant Sports. You can follow Alejandro on Twitter right here > @geografoot