ORLANDO, Fla. -- As the final whistle blew, Blas Perez dropped his knees onto the soggy pitch, crossed himself and hugged teammate Abdiel Arroyo around the waist.
In a career full of importance performances for Panama, this might've been the biggest yet.
Perez’s 87th-minute strike off Arroyo’s cross lifted Panama to a 2-1 victory over Bolivia at Camping World Stadium Monday in their first-ever Copa America match.
That completed a deserved brace, and in the process proved the 35-year-old Vancouver Whitecaps forward can still be a force on the international stage.
“Blas Perez is a man that represents a lot of things,” Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez said through a translator. "He’s a man who has had triumphant moments. He’s been sent to the heavens and the hells, and he’s never given up.”
Perez had already scored his 40th international goal in the 11th minute when he smashed home Alberto Quintero’s cross with a sliding half volley.
After Juan Carlos Arce’s 54th-minute equalizer, Gomez could have inserted Panama’s all-time leading scorer Luis Tejada in Perez’s place.
Instead, he paired the two together in the 56th minute, and spent his final sub to insert Arroyo in what proved a masterstroke three minutes from time.
After Tejada collected a ball in the midfield circle, he spotted Arroyo wide right. Arroyo rode off Nelson Cabrera’s challenge and hit a low cross into the path of Perez, who slotted a right-footed finish into an open goal.
“Luis is very, very smart on the field,” said Perez, whose 41st goal moved him within one of Tejada. “He [made a] pass for Arroyo, and Arroyo give it to me. It’s easy in the box for me.”
Said Gomez of his substitutions: “Sometimes we fix things and we make things worse. … I tell the boys, the work is done, I have a good team, I have good players. Hopefully I don’t screw it up.”
Shortly after, the final whistle blew. The Panamanian fans who endured driving rains and wind celebrated one of the biggest victories in their nation’s history.
Perez soaked it all in, finally heading to the tunnel long after his teammates.
“For now, we are enjoying it,” Perez said. “It’s the first time in the cup. It’s a joy.”
Said Gomez: "He deserves it, and the group loves him. ... And Panama loves him as well."