PANAMA CITY, Panama — David Samudio Garay is the longtime play-by-play man for Panama’s RPC television, and he can still remember all the horrific details of that night four years ago when the U.S. came to this city and ended Panama’s World Cup dream with the biggest gut-punch imaginable.
Panama was leading the U.S. 2-1 the 92nd minute of the final game in the 2013 CONCACAF Hexagonal. The U.S. had already qualified for World Cup 2014 in its previous game, so it technically had nothing to play for but pride. Panama, meanwhile, was within a hairsbreadth of qualifying for an intercontinental playoff with New Zealand to make its first World Cup—and even more shocking, doing so at the expense of Mexico, which was seconds from being eliminated entirely from the World Cup.
The fans in the stands at Estadio Rommel Fernández were boisterous with expectation. A giant party was about to happen.
And then … disaster for Panama.
“Everybody remembers October 15, 2013,” said Garay ahead of Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against the U.S. (10 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports). “Everyone knows where they were and what their feelings were.”
In the 92nd minute, Graham Zusi scored for the United States—and an entire nation doubled over in pain. Garay said he usually screams whenever there’s a goal, even for the visiting team. But that night he went entirely quiet for 10 seconds before croaking: “The United States has scored.” Aron Jóhannsson would score again for the U.S., but by then it was a moot point. Panama was out of the World Cup.
“We went from heaven to hell in five minutes,” Garay said. “The goal by Zusi froze everything. Everyone went quiet in the stadium. People in the stands were crying. Players were crying. Everybody was sad because we thought that finally Panama was going to get a chance to go to the World Cup.”
It was one of the most surreal nights in CONCACAF history. The TV call by the Mexican commentators is an incredible viewing experience, both celebrating Mexico’s survival and blaming the Mexican players for being awful during the qualifying campaign:
Zusi, for his part, became San Zusi (Saint Zusi) to Mexican fans, who can thank him for Mexico, the U.S.’s archrival, being able to make it to Brazil 2014. When Zusi returned to his club in Kansas City, Spanish-language media gave him a giant sombrero and celebrated him as an honorary Mexican.
For Panama, it was the opposite feeling. Zusi, who’s here with the U.S. for Tuesday’s game, didn’t want to speak to media about it on Tuesday. But teammate Jozy Altidore did.
“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” Altidore said. “It was tough. Obviously, you’re on the field as a professional to do a job. But the human side of me, I felt sad for [Panama] because I know what it’s like to go to a World Cup, to qualify for a World Cup. That’s the dream of any player. To be on the side that took that away from them, it’s kind of tough, but at the same time it’s part of the game.”
When asked if Panama will be thinking about when it broke Panama’s heart here four years ago on Tuesday night, U.S. coach Bruce Arena cracked: “We’re not smart enough to think like that. If we were smart enough, we wouldn’t have broken their hearts. Pretty stupid if you ask me. You think Mexico would have scored a goal [to save the U.S.’s World Cup] at the end of that game?”
For Panamanians, the Zusi goal is a still a sensitive topic. If Zusi is on the field tonight, he’ll get treated differently on Garay’s play-by-play call.
“When he’s playing, we don’t want to mention him a lot,” said Garay. “When I’m doing the play-by-play, I’m saying”—and here he goes into rapid Spanish—“’Altidore has the ball, he passes to the right for …”—long pause, voice softens into a pained tone—“Zoooooo-siiiiiii. Graaahaaaammm Zoooo-siiii. Let’s not talk about that guy! Let’s talk about somebody else. Why? Because you know what happened with him!’
“That’s what we say when we’re doing our games,” Garay continued with a wry shake of his head. “But in a good sense. That was four years ago. It was a moment of history. I know he was doing his job.”
Garay also shared one other piece of arcana from the night of October 15, 2013, the day that Panamanians remember so clearly.
“An interesting story,” he said. “You know the gamesmanship? The [Panamanian] federation had a guy waiting in the wings on the corner of the other side, holding him, a spectator. They were going to throw him on the field to start running just to stop the game [with Panama ahead of the U.S. to waste time].”
“But [Panama coach Julio Dely Valdés] said, ‘Hold on, let’s wait until they put the four minutes of added time on. So they wait. 90th minute … 91st minute … 92nd minute. We had a shot on our channel where you can see Dely after the goal, hands on hips, and then you see the guy running. But the referee wasn’t watching on the other side. He was watching the game. We sent the guy running late! We wanted to send him in the 90th minute on the field. Everything stops, the referee gets the guy and throws him out of the game. They wanted to do that and stop the game! But we couldn’t even do that right.”
Like I said: One of the most surreal nights in CONCACAF history. Soccer is horrible. Soccer is the best.