In the split second that Panamanian football changed forever, Anibal Godoy recalls his instinct to find his family. But as his mind struggled to process Roman Torres’ 88th-minute goal against Costa Rica, which put Panama in position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he saw his teammate run to the corner and give chase.
“Right now he’s hard to catch,” Godoy told ESPN. “Because it’s a great feeling for him and for everyone. If you ask anyone in Panama what the best football moment ever is, they’ll tell you it’s Roman Torres’ goal.”
Euphoria has a way of affecting the sense of time. The reality is that it took only seconds for Godoy to launch himself onto Torres’ shirtless back, creating one of the enduring images of a celebration that reverberated far beyond the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City and across the Central American country. .
As the cheers subsided, she was followed by a nervous buzz. Panama’s first-ever World Cup ticket would not officially be beaten unless the other scores around CONCACAF remained unchanged – and memories of 2014 came flooding back. Four years earlier, Panama was minutes away from forcing a World Cup playoff against New Zealand to concede a late goal against the United States and was eliminated.
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The next 10 minutes of real time may have seemed like 10 hours, but the results – including the United States’ infamous 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago – held up and Panama was on its way to Russia. While the cheeks of American players still glistened with tears shed in mourning that they would not compete in a World Cup for the first time since 1986, euphoria reigned on the streets of Panama City and beyond.
At around midnight, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela declared the next day a national holiday. Translated from Spanish, Varela wrote on Twitter: “The voice of the people has been heard; celebrate Panama’s historic day. Tomorrow is a national holiday.”
Not that it mattered to the Panamanians who partied all night, but the match was not without notable controversy. Replay showed that Panama’s 52nd minute goal to make it 1-1 did not go over the line, and without goal-line technology or a Video Assistant Referee, there was no way to reverse the call on the pitch.
It is impossible to say how the match would have gone if that goal had not been given. It is entirely possible that Panama could still have won just as there could have been alternative outcomes, although the thought of erasing the greatest moment in Panamanian football history seems extremely cruel.
Instead, it was US Soccer whose history could do with erasing that moment in time. The combination of Couva’s defeat and Panama’s victory prevented the Americans from qualifying for their first World Cup in 32 years, leaving an era of soul-searching, reinvention and rebuilding of the men’s national team that still feels incomplete. , gets underway. four years later.
Torres, who then played club football with the Seattle Sounders, took on an iconic status at home.
“Pure luck. The Panamanians are so blessed with what happened,” Torres said through an interpreter when he returned to Seattle. “It is something we have been working towards for a long time. It was a historic moment for our country and for our national team.”
Being involved in such a historic moment can still seem unreal to Godoy, who then played in Major League Soccer with the San Jose Earthquakes and has since moved to Nashville SC.
“People cried for a week,” he said. “People didn’t believe we were going to the World Cup because it’s hard for us to go. We have to fight with the big national teams: USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras. Everyone knows that in CONCACAF it’s tough and For us, that moment was a big celebration for the whole country.”
Panama was defeated 11-2 and lost all three games in Russia — against Belgium, England and Tunisia — but the lasting impact of his participation is hard to underestimate. Baseball has long been considered the country’s national sport, but Godoy insists that’s not necessarily still the case.
“I think football is the first sport in Panama now,” he said. “Everyone is trying to follow football. Everyone wants to play football, all the kids. This is good for us because now we have so many people who want to play the sport and before that — I think 15 years ago — we didn’t have that. We had not the same passion for football, it was for other sports like baseball and boxing.”
Higher expectations have arisen with that growth and success. Many of the 2018 squad’s stalwarts – players like Torres, goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and striker Blas Perez, among others – have retired or are no longer playing for the national team, but Panama still has a promising start on the Qatar road. 2022.
In the first qualifying period last month, Panama drew at home with Costa Rica (0-0) and Mexico (1-1) and recorded a resounding 3-0 win over Jamaica. It took a step back in a downpour to lose 1-0 to El Salvador on Thursday night and now turns its attention to Sunday’s home game against the United States.
While Godoy is the only MLS player on the current Panama roster, the league has served as an inviting home base for several players from the country over the years. Godoy commends the competition for playing a valuable role in both its own development and that of many of his compatriots.
“I think this competition is important for us,” he said. “So many Panamanian players get the chance to try something different, try to play football and change their lives. I’m proud to try to play in this great league. I’ve learned a lot here in this league; it’s a difficult place to play.”
Perhaps more than anyone on the Panamanian side, Godoy knows what to expect from the United States. He has been impressed by the American youth movement and has seen firsthand how many American players have developed within MLS towards more prominent roles on the national team, such as Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson, who passed the USMNT over Jamaica on Thursday night.
Despite the presence of both European and MLS stars on the roster, Godoy sees Sunday’s game as a Panama that expects to win.
“I think this is a very important game for us because [El Salvador was away] and the last match [in the October window] we also play against Canada,” said Godoy. “We only have one game at home and that’s against the US. This is the game we have to win, because we know that if we want to go to the World Cup, we have to win at home.”
Panama’s last win against the United States came at the 2015 Gold Cup when it won 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw. In 23 all-time games, Panama has beaten the United States only once, a 2-1 victory at the 2011 Gold Cup.
But on that October night in 2017, even though the two teams didn’t play each other, Panama’s win and USMNT’s defeat proved more meaningful than any game between the two. The Panama-US meeting on Sunday will mark the four-year anniversary of that moment, and both sides will have it fresh in mind, but for entirely different reasons.