Un­likely Panama hero Tor­res be­comes big fish in small pond

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - TOMMY CON­LON

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

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