You know the story by now. As the seconds drained away in Costa Rica and Panama, Mexico had completed their final and ultimate capitulation: Needing just a point to seal a playoff berth, El Tri — under their third manager in three months — were losing 2-1 in the rain against a Costa Rica side with nothing to play for. Meanwhile, their rival for the last playoff spot, Panama, secured a dramatic late winner over the United States with just minutes to go in the game.
Oh the dread, Mexico, that soccer mad nation, must have felt watching the clock run down. Somehow, through all their horror shows and setbacks, the feeling that El Tri would make it to the World Cup in the end hadn’t wavered. Now, the end stared them in the face. That was until Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored two late goals for the United States, to bail Mexico out.
Just four days earlier, adidas unveiled Mexico’s World Cup kit early, figuring that the side may never be able to wear it in the Finals. Mexico’s home World Cup kit is a cash cow for the sportswear company, just as the World Cup is a cash cow for the country: Estimates are that the Mexican economy will gain $600 million dollars through their team qualifying.
In that Friday night game at the Azteca against Panama, a miracle of a bicycle kick from late substitute Raul Jimenez rescued Mexico’s World Cup dream. It reduced international superstar Javier Hernandez of Manchester United to unrelenting and uncontrollable tears at the final whistle.
That is the pressure of reaching the World Cup. It means so much to so many, it’s impossible to quantify within the realm of sport. There is so much pride, so much expectation, so much eager anticipation that failure and success both reduce many of the most famous and hardened footballers in the world to tears.
Some players aren’t famous at all outside of their home countries or clubs; some are just tasting the biggest and best stage for the first time.
Iceland qualified for the European playoffs for the first time Tuesday, and one percent of the entire country traveled to Norway and stayed in the stadium well past the final whistle to see their side clinch.
Literally from nowhere, Iceland would be the smallest ever country to make the World Cup Finals.
In Iceland, the men made the stage. In Egypt, the stage made the men, and then undid them.
Fighting to unify a country that cannot be unified, in the middle of a war-zone that has not only destructed government and order but also countless lives and perhaps most insignificantly, their soccer league, an American from New Jersey walked into an unthinkable situation.
Bob Bradley made himself part of the fabric of Egypt, a beacon of hope. Bradley took his team and his adopted country to the brink of glory – a first World Cup since 1990, only to see the dreams of a nation come so painfully undone.
Egypt weren’t ready for the big stage on Tuesday. They were cowed by the moment, and undone by a terrific Ghanian team. The final score was 6-1. Egypt, are almost surely out. They came all that way for nothing. Now, Bradley will almost surely leave the job, a tragic end to a journey that would not be justified by the descriptor “fit for Hollywood”.
Bosnia-Herzegovina made their first World Cup as well, stepping out of the shadow of neighbors Croatia and Serbia, out of the shadow of years of warfare at home, and on a day when the rain poured down in Lithuania, the Bosnians grabbed the sun.
At Wembley, the home football, England exhaled and then believed. So long prosecuted and protested against, Roy Hodgson shook with joy, while players who have seen the wrath of the nation after failure, basked in the glory after this success.
Steven Gerrard’s game-winning goal, a trademark powerful, husky runs finished off with nothing but desire, was awesome. As Gerrard jetted off in celebration, you could see just how much it meant to him and his team. This time, the boys made the nation proud.
The joy was met with pain. Denmark, for instance, saw a stoppage time equalizer from Italy drop them to the worst second place team in Europe and saw them miss the qualifying playoff. The margins are that thin.
Panama cried as well. So close to making the playoff for the first time in their history, players and fans were gutted at full-time. During the match, one of Panama’s players asked Kyle Beckerman and the US to take it easy on the pitch, and in extension, lose. In what other scenario could you see that happening?
For so many teams, getting to the World Cup, being represented at the biggest party on the planet, seeing the flag and singing the anthem is what really counts.
For others, getting to the show isn’t enough. But Andres Iniesta, a man with World Cup, European Championships, La Liga titles, Champions League titles and countless other medals to his name still glowed as Spain qualified in his home town of Albacete.
Switzerland won a seed for the draw for the first time ever, while Chile and Ecuador players celebrated together at full-time of their match on the occasion of both countries making the World Cup. Just days earlier, Belgium‘s young star-gazers, blessed with so much talent and money and success just hopped around a pitch in Croatia together, thrilled with their achievement.
And yes, most dramatically, the USA scored two stoppage time goals to break Panama’s hearts and resurrect Mexico from their World Cup deathbed. It was too shocking to even comprehend.
While fans all around America wondered what their side had done, the good people of Mexico fell all over themselves professing their love for their new favorite team.
What a game, huh?
What other sport, what other competition would you ever see this in?
It’s just a yo-yo of emotion, cruel and wonderful and it’s about staying alive by the grace of god, as Chicharito chalked it up to after his side were saved with a miracle even surpassing their previous miracle.
For all of FIFA’s demons and for all the issues riddling international football, there is still something eminently noble about it all. These players play for little money. They are under no contract. They have no obligation to mind, or to care what happens to their national team.
And yet it means more than anything else in sport.