PANAMA CITY, Panama – It was sporting theater at its finest – a crowd, a city, a country at the mercy of the ebbs and flows that defined one of the wildest nights in CONCACAF history.
Unfortunately for the thousands packed into Estadio Rommel Fernández living and dying with the action in front of them as well as further north in San José, Panama’s utter and complete elation on Tuesday night turned to stoppage-time agony that will haunt the nation’s soccer dreams for the next four years.
With Mexico down 2-1 on the road in Costa Rica, a fact known by every last soul in the building, and Panama up by the same scoreline vs. the US, the World Cup was within grasp – via a playoff against New Zealand at least – and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. With a little more than 91 minutes on the clock, Graham Zusi headed in the game-tying goal that shook the entire region, ensuring El Tri survived for another day and rendering what had been a jubilant crowd dumbstruck with devastation.
“This is just how football writes these crazy, emotional stories,” US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in his postgame press conference. “We all felt all of sudden when Graham scored that header that it was all quiet. Silence. You feel for them. Maybe it’s a little bit of my culture, the German culture, you never stop before the referee blows the whistle.”
And while Panama didn’t necessarily stop following substitute Luis Tejada’s go-ahead goal in the 84th minute, one that kicked off a heavy front of beer showers all over the stadium, they weren’t tactically astute, either.
Klinsmann admitted he figured the ball would spend a lot of time in the stands following Tejada’s tally, the Panamanians content to burn time rather than expose even the slightest chink in their armor, but that wasn’t the case. Time and time again, Los Canaleros pushed forward, lost the ball and opened space for their opponents.
“It didn’t seem like they thought we were going to come after them after they got their second,” Zusi said. “I guess it’s not in our nature to give up early.”
The Americans never did, keeping the crowd in hysterics while the seconds slowly ticked away.
Finally, Zusi capitalized on that recklessness. And just a minute later, with the energy drained from both the stadium and the Panamanian team, substitute Aron Jóhannsson delivered the death blow to seal a 3-2 US win that broke hearts just about everywhere in CONCACAF but Mexico.
Nearly four years to the day after American gumption kept Costa Rica out of a guaranteed World Cup slot, they were at it again. Only this time it wasn’t quite so easy to brush off the pain coursing through their opponents once the final whistle finally blew.
“Look, we’re happy we won, but I feel bad for Panama,” US midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “I could see it on the players’ faces after the game. I wanted to congratulate them on a good tournament, but the sad thing about sports is there’s always a loser. Sucks that it comes at the expense of a victory for us, but that’s life.”
And life goes on. It may not feel that way now for a soccer-obsessed nation still striving for its first World Cup appearance, but the wound inflicted on Oct. 15, 2013, will gradually heal.
Only the scar tissue will remain, but perhaps that will be enough to remind Panama that almost isn’t enough when the World Cup is on the line.
“Obviously you feel for the people, you feel for the country, you feel for [Panama coach Julio] Dely Valdés, who I admire a lot,” Klinsmann said. “But this is football. It’s not over until it’s over.”