PHILADELPHIA – Iridescent confetti fell at his feet. High above Lincoln Financial Field, fireworks lit up the night sky. On stage, Mexico whooped it up, taking turns lifting CONCACAF’s giant gaudy cup.
Michael Hector didn’t avert his eyes. He lingered. He soaked up what could have been as Jamaica’s fairytale Gold Cup run came to a close.
Finally, after everyone else in green and yellow had trudged down the tunnel to mourn in privacy, Hector turned and made his way toward the locker room where his brothers waited to comfort him after a night in which his gaffes – a sloppy turnover and botched clearance – gifted Mexico the two goals that made the difference in a 3-1 final win.
As he crossed the white line, Hector bent over, touched the grass and crossed himself, his lowest moment as a professional behind him but never forgotten.
“I wanted to watch them lift the trophy to make me realize what I’ve done and make me feel that I don’t want to be in that situation ever again in my life, to hopefully win this tournament in the future,” a composed Hector told reporters. “…I wanted to feel the pain of what it feels like to lose in a final.”
“I’m gutted for the players,” he added. “I said in the changing room that I’m sorry for the mistakes that cost the goals. They didn’t deserve this in the final.”
Had Jamaica, the unquestioned darlings of the tournament, gotten what they deserved, they may have lifted the cup. Had Mexico gotten what they deserved, they may not have escaped the quarterfinals. And Hector certainly didn’t deserve the cruel hand he was dealt in the biggest match of his young career.
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The London-born center back joined the ambitious Boyz only five months ago. If veteran Jermaine Taylor hadn’t suffered a quad injury in Jamaica’s Group B finale, the Reading defender almost certainly would have been watching from the bench.
And yet here he was, 23 years young, apologizing to his teammates after their Gold Cup dreams slipped away following an inspiring run that saw the islanders win the tournament’s group of death, knock off Haiti in the quarters and shock the soccer world by upsetting the US in the semis.
“There were a lot of tears in the locker room after, but it’s not just tears from being upset. It’s tears of pride as well,” leading scorer Giles Barnes told MLSsoccer.com. “I think we’ve done so much for Jamaican football. To stand next to your brother and see your brother crying, it’s a lot of emotion right now. We should be proud as a nation for everything we’ve achieved.”
While Jamaican tears came freely, champagne flowed in the Mexican dressing room, and a conga line, complete with boom box and multiple trophies, formed to usher the giddy players past the media, to the team bus and, presumably, into Philly to celebrate.
Embroiled in controversy and largely lackluster from the group stage through the semifinals, Mexico finally showed up when it counted most, earning the gold medals they wore around their necks and a Confederations Cup playoff matchup against the United States on Oct. 9 at the Rose Bowl.
Jamaica, of course, wore silver. But, after all they’d been through and all they’d accomplished, the color seemed irrelevant.
“I told my players, ‘Thank you for your work for Jamaica. It’s not a silver medal. It’s a gold medal,’” head coach Winfried Schaefer said. “Only a small group gave this team a shot. I am very proud to be the coach of this team.”
Now, following a summer that saw Jamaica compete in both Copa America and the Gold Cup, the majority of his players will return to their clubs without the rest their competition enjoyed, a professional sacrifice that Schaefer said few could truly understand.
Come September, however, Jamaica will dream even bigger. They’ll dream of Russia, of the second-ever World Cup in the nation’s history.
To make that dream a reality, the Reggae Boyz must defeat Nicaragua in a September home-and-home series, finish in the top two in a stacked fourth round group that includes Costa Rica, Panama and, potentially, Haiti, then navigate the always tricky Hexagonal, should they make it that far.
On this night, however, that still seemed far away. On this night, they were second best, but that couldn’t dampen the pride they felt in an accomplishment only they could have imagined a month prior.
“It’s just incredible for the whole country. They’ve got something in football that they can be proud of,” Barnes said. “They turn the TV on today in Jamaica and they see us and they know how much pride and how much passion we have for the country. I hope they take this as a big positive milestone. Hopefully they’ll be cheering us on in [Russia 2018] as well.”