WASHINGTON — First they flocked to the RFK Stadium ticket office, snapping up hundreds of tickets an hour once they learned that their beloved team would be coming to town for a Gold Cup quarterfinal, selling out the cavernous venue in less than three days. Then they thronged their team’s training sessions and hotel, some waiting in the lobby for hours just to chat or grab photos with their team’s players.
And on the big day itself, they arrived early and in force, swarming their adopted country’s capital city and turning RFK’s parking lots into an enormous blue-clad festival for hours.
El Salvador came to play on Sunday, both on and off the field, and the result was one of the most memorable spectacles in the recent history of both the stadium and the tournament — an event that swelled the national team with pride despite their agonizing penalty-kick shootout loss to Panama.
“Besides losing, we leave with our heads up, looking forward,” said midfielder Rodolfo Zelaya, El Salvador’s goal-scorer and man of the match. “We’re happy with the coach’s ideas, we’ve had a very good Gold Cup. Like the refs, we’ve made mistakes ourselves — we’re all human beings.
“I was the one who missed the [game’s first] penalty, but I have all the support from my teammates and the coaches. I made the second one, but we’re still sad because of the elimination. But we’re very happy with all the work we did in this Gold Cup.”
Besides the large, loud crowd, penalties and refereeing decisions were the unavoidable centerpiece of the night. Costa Rican ref Walter Quesada gave El Salvador a dubious PK call in the first half, only for Zelaya to be denied by Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. But Zelaya converted another one in the second stanza, only for Los Cuscatlecos to give up a controversial equalizer in the 90th minute on a goal that everyone wearing blue would insist never actually crossed the goal line.
Then there were the many yellow cards — and red cards for Panama’s Blas Pérez and El Salvador’s Luis Anaya, both awarded after the close of regulation time as the teams milled about on the RFK pitch.
“It’s a very difficult game to digest,” said Ruben Israel, El Salvador’s veteran Uruguayan coach, who went on to offer a philosophical take on the result. “Aside from the ball that didn’t go in, El Salvador’s elimination has been conditioned by human error made by the referees, which is OK because they’re human and they can make mistakes.
“This is just a game, we’re all human, we all make mistakes — we accept it and don’t have to judge anyone. It’s up to analyze what’s left of the game: a very important appearance by El Salvador at the international level. We had very good chances in every game, and I feel like we could’ve made it even further.”
The Washington area is home to a massive Salvadoran population, and their loyal support on days like Sunday has led RFK to be nicknamed “Estadio Cuscatlán Norte.” But the pulsating crowd of 45,423 couldn’t quite will their side to victory.
“Having a big Salvadoran community here in DC, it just shows you how passionate we are about soccer," said Real Salt Lake winger Arturo Alvarez, who entered the match in the 68th minute and nearly set up the game-winner in stoppage time of the second half of extra time. "Unfortunately, we couldn’t give them a good result — we were looking forward to qualifying for the semifinals.”
Alvarez and his teammates will look back proudly on their Gold Cup run, however.
“I think we’ve got to take all the positives about it,” he said. “Coming into the tournament and losing to Mexico 5-0, most teams would kind of just give up, but we came in and showed a lot of heart against Costa Rica, who tied us in the last minute of the game. And we did what we had to do against Cuba, so that put us through.
“Coming here, it wasn’t an easy game but we showed what we’re made of. Unfortunately PKs didn’t go our way.”