Unlikely Panama hero Torres becomes big fish in small pond
SEEKING the goal that would transport them to their first World Cup, Panama threw Román Torres up front in the hope he might somehow or other bundle one into the net. Described in various match reports as “hefty”, “bulky”, and “an animal in the box”, the veteran centre-half latched on to a headed-on ball, shunted the last defender out of the way like a skittle, and crashed it home on the half-volley.
It was the 88th minute of their do-ordie match with Costa Rica on Tuesday night. And it wasn’t even half the story. Panama needed an improbable sequence of results elsewhere, too.
Three teams out of the final qualifying group for FIFA’s CONCACAF region would make it to Russia automatically. Mexico, the runaway leaders, and Costa Rica were already safe. USA were hot favourites to join them. They just needed to beat bottom-of-the-table Trinidad and Tobago. Even a draw would have done. Honduras weren’t out of it but for starters they would have to beat Mexico and that was unlikely.
Long story short, Trinidad and Tobago beat USA 2-1. Honduras beat Mexico 3-2, having trailed 1-0 and 2-1.
Panama were 1-0 down at half-time. They equalised with a goal that was emphatically not a goal. The ball didn’t cross the line. It may not even have touched the line. An almighty goalmouth scramble from an in-swinging corner culminated at the far post with the Panama No 7, Blas Perez, lying on the ground, trying to nudge it over the line with his head and shoulder and maybe a bit of arm too. The ball ends up jammed against the post. A defender, lying on his back on the goal-line, hacks at it; the ball ricochets off Perez’s chest and squirts out wide. Mysteriously, the referee awards a goal, apparently believing the ball had crossed the line. “Increíble!” shouts one of the Spanish-language TV commentators, “increíble!”
With Honduras turning it around against Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago holding on to their lead against USA, things turned even more incredible when Torres scored what has already been crowned the most famous goal in Panama’s history.
Like many Panamanian pros, Torres spent most of his career bouncing around the football leagues in neighbouring Colombia. Now 31, in 2015 he signed for the Seattle Sounders in America’s MLS.
Standing 6ft 2in and weighing around 195lb, Seattle have often converted him into a battering-ram centre-forward when needing a goal. Duly sent up to cause havoc in a game against New England Revolution last May, The Seattle Times reported that Torres “crashed around the net like a giant tuna thrown into a wading pool”.
There was no stopping him in Panama City on Tuesday night. He celebrated by whipping off his shirt, hurdling the pitchside hoardings and getting engulfed by team-mates and subs. Flares went off as fans in the Rommel Fernández Stadium, named after the country’s greatest player, went berserk. One supporter made it down to share a hug. A patrolling soldier tried to usher him away. Torres embraced the fan and shooed away the soldier who, left with no other choice, then proceeded to join in the group hug too.
With results in the other two games decided, the sensational news was confirmed: Panama were going to the greatest show on earth.
This narrow neck of land, the southern-most country in the isthmus that joins North America to South America, has a population of around four million people. Perennially overshadowed in soccer, not just by Mexico but minnows like Honduras and El Salvador too, baseball is considered the national sport. It is followed closely by boxing, the game in which Roberto ‘Manos de Piedra’ Duran became a world champion and national hero during the 1970s and ’80s. But old ‘Hands of Stone’ will now have to move over in the pantheon and make spacious room for its latest inductee, Román ‘Giant Tuna’ Torres.
Later that night, Panama president Juan Carlos Varela announced that Thursday would be a national holiday for public and private sector workers. “It is a historic day. Tonight the planets aligned, you must never lose faith,” declared President Carlos J Haughey. It might well have been a public holiday anyway, given that thousands of citizens took to the streets, celebrating madly, blaring their car horns all night. Verily, there wasn’t a ship sent up the Panama Canal for the rest of the week.
Honduras’ win over Mexico, meanwhile, earned them a November play-off against Australia.
USA will not be at a World Cup for the first time since 1986. If it was possible for any non-Panamanian to be happier with Tuesday’s turn of events, it was one Jack Warner. The former FIFA grandee is fighting extradition to America, having been pursued for years by the FBI on a long corruption rap sheet. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, the fact it was his own country that had eliminated USA was almost too delicious to contemplate. “This is the happiest day of my life,” declared the old buzzard. “It couldn’t have given me greater joy.”
On Thursday, Torres was back in Seattle, still on a high from his exploits. “It’s a memory that will never fade,” he told local reporters. The national drink in Panama is a sugarcane liquor called Seco Herrerano. If there’s any justice in the world, Big Román will never have to pay for another shot of it in his life.
Mysteriously, the referee awards a goal