In the split second that Panamanian soccer changed forever, Anibal Godoy remembers his instinct to find his family. But as his mind tried to process Roman Torres‘ 88th-minute goal against Costa Rica that put Panama in position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he saw his teammate running for the corner and gave chase.
“In this moment, he’s difficult to catch,” Godoy told ESPN. “Because it’s this amazing feeling for him and for everybody. If you would ask anyone in Panama what is the best ever moment in football, they will tell you it’s the goal from Roman Torres.”
Euphoria has a way of affecting the sense of time. The reality is that it took just seconds for Godoy to launch himself on Torres’ shirtless back, creating one of the lasting images of a celebration that reverberated far beyond the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City and throughout the Central American nation.
As the cheers calmed, they were followed by a nervous buzz. Panama’s first-ever ticket to the World Cup wouldn’t officially be punched unless the other scores around CONCACAF remained unchanged — and memories of 2014 came rushing back. Four years earlier, Panama was minutes away from forcing a World Cup playoff match against New Zealand, only to concede a late goal against the United States to be knocked out of contention.
The next 10 minutes of real time might have seemed like 10 hours but the results — including the United States’ infamous 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago — held and Panama was on its way to Russia. With the cheeks of American players still glistening from the tears shed in mourning the fact that they would not contest a World Cup for the first time since 1986, euphoria encompassed the streets of Panama City and beyond.
Around midnight, Panama president Juan Carlos Varela declared the following 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 will be a national holiday.”
Not that it mattered to the Panamanians who celebrated through the night, but the game wasn’t without significant controversy. Replay showed Panama’s 52nd-minute goal that leveled the score at 1-1 did not cross the line, and without goal-line technology or a Video Assistant Referee, there was no way to reverse the call on the field.
It’s impossible to say how the game would have played out if that goal wasn’t given. It’s entirely possible Panama still could have won, just as there could have been alternative outcomes, although the thought of erasing the greatest moment in Panamanian soccer history seems exceedingly cruel.
Instead, it was U.S. Soccer whose history could do with erasing that moment in time. The combination of its defeat in Couva and Panama’s victory ensured that the Americans would fail to qualify for their first World Cup in 32 years, putting in motion an era of soul searching, reimagining and rebuilding the men’s national team that still doesn’t feel complete four years later.
Torres, who then played club soccer with the Seattle Sounders, was forever granted iconic status at home.
“Pure happiness. The Panamanians are so blessed with what happened,” Torres said through an interpreter when he returned to Seattle. “It’s something we’ve been working towards for a very long time. It was a historic moment for our country and for our national team.”
“People were crying like for one week,” he said. “The people didn’t believe that we’re going to the World Cup because it’s tough for us to go. We need to fight with the big national teams: USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras. Everybody knows in CONCACAF it’s tough and for us that moment was a big celebration for all the country.”
Panama was outscored 11-2 and lost all three matches in Russia — against Belgium, England and Tunisia — but the lasting impact of its participation is hard to understate. Baseball has long been considered the country’s national sport, but Godoy insists that’s not necessarily still the case.
“Football is the first sport in Panama now,” he said. “Everybody tries to follow football. Everybody 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 — I think 15 years ago — we didn’t have that. We didn’t have the same passion about football, it was for other sports like baseball and boxing.”
With that growth and success has come heightened expectations. Many of the stalwarts from the 2018 team — players such as Torres, goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and forward Blas Perez, among others — are either retired or no longer playing for the national team, but Panama is still off to a promising start on the road to Qatar 2022.
In the first qualifying window last month, Panama drew with Costa Rica (0-0) and Mexico (1-1) at home and recorded a resounding 3-0 win at Jamaica. It took a step back in a driving rain to lose 1-0 at El Salvador on Thursday night and will turn its attention to Sunday’s match at home against the United States.
Although Godoy is the only player from MLS on the current Panama roster, the league has served as an inviting home for several players from the country over the years. Godoy credits the league for playing a valuable role in both his own development and that over many of his countrymen.
“This league, I think it’s important for us,” he said. “So many Panamanian players get the opportunity to try a something different, to try to play football and to transition their lives. I feel proud to try to be in this amazing league. I’ve learned a lot here in this league; it’s a tough place to play.”
Perhaps more than anyone on the Panamanian side, Godoy knows what to expect from the United States. He has come away impressed with the American youth movement and has seen firsthand how many of the U.S. players have been developed within MLS on their way to more prominent roles with the national team — like Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson, who willed the USMNT past Jamaica on Thursday night.
Still, despite the presence of both European and MLS stars on the roster, Godoy views Sunday’s game as one Panama expects to win.
“For us this is a very important game because [El Salvador was away] and the last game [in the October window] against Canada we also play away,” Godoy said. “We have only one game at home and this is against the USA. This is the game we need to win because we know if we want to go to the World Cup we need to win at home.”
Panama’s last victory against the United States came at the 2015 Gold Cup, when it won 3-2 in penalties after playing to a 1-1 draw. In 23 matches all-time, Panama has defeated the United States just one other time, a 2-1 win at the 2011 Gold Cup.
But on that October night in 2017, even though the two teams weren’t playing each other, Panama’s victory and the USMNT’s defeat proved more meaningful than any contest between the two. Sunday’s meeting of Panama and the U.S. marks the four-year anniversary of that moment, and both sides will have it fresh in mind, but for entirely different reasons.