Fans have to prepare for the World Cup, just like the players do. Yesterday gave us a preview of what we can look forward to next summer. In particular, those final games in the group stage, where matches are played simultaneously, and the standings change with every score.
All day, there were World Cup qualifiers in Europe, in Africa, in South America, and in Asia. I caught Ghana’s 6-1 trouncing of Egypt in the morning, then watched England-Poland and Spain-Georgia at the same time in the afternoon. But the best came in the evening, when the CONCACAF qualifying round reached its end. The key matches were Panama-United States, and Costa Rica-Mexico. The USA and Costa Rica had already qualified for Brazil 2014, and so the battle essentially came down to Panama and Mexico. At the end of the night, one of them would advance to a playoff against New Zealand, the other would be eliminated. Mexico had the upper hand, and it would take a complicated set of events for them to fall out of the competition.
Panama took a shock 1-0 lead over the U.S. in the 18th minute. That in itself would not be enough to qualify … they needed Mexico to lose, as well. Panama’s hopes were raised when Costa Rica took a 1-0 lead over the Mexicans in the 25th minute, but Mexico equalized four minutes later. At the halves, Panama was winning, Mexico was tied, which would mean Mexico would advance and Panama was done.
In the 64th minute of both matches, two things occurred which temporarily changed things. The U.S. equalized in Panama, but Costa Rica took a 2-1 lead against Mexico. That result would still advance Mexico and leave Panama behind.
Except in the 84th minute, Panama regained the lead against the USA, and suddenly, Mexico looked to be out of the World Cup. Their offense seemed deflated … I didn’t get the feeling they were going to score the one goal that would keep them alive in the qualifiers. Meanwhile, Panama-USA went into extra time. The referee indicated three minutes would be added.
At the 1:24 mark of those three minutes, the U.S. equalized. They then added a game-winner at the 2:40 mark. In those three minutes of extra time, Panama went from a trip to New Zealand to World Cup elimination, while Mexico, who never did score an equalizer, went from elimination to continued life in the qualifiers.
I was watching Andres Cantor do the Mexico match, and he was updating us on what was happening in Panama. It reminded me of the time a few World Cups ago when he was doing radio for a pair of games at the end of the group stage, and he was announcing two games at once … not announcing one and updating us on the other, but actually announcing them at the same time.
The frenetic ending was heart-stopping, and heart-breaking for the Panamanians. But the reaction in Mexico was … well, remember that Mexico and the U.S. are the main rivals in this region, and there is no love lost between them (I’m talking soccer, but obviously there are other ways in which the relationship between the two countries is a bit jagged).
Someone uploaded this, which is apparently from Mexican television. You can see both matches on the screen … on the right, Mexico is losing to Costa Rica, on the left, Panama is a couple of minutes away from advancing. In a supreme CONCACAF irony, Mexico’s future depended on the United States doing something in those last two minutes. And they did:
WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU FOREVER AND EVER! GOD BLESS AMERICA!