Tension, drama and CONCACAF absurdity on one of soccer's wildest nights in the Americas

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Panama’s celebrations capped two-and-a-half of the wildest hours World Cup qualifying has ever witnessed. (Getty)
Panama’s celebrations capped two-and-a-half of the wildest hours World Cup qualifying has ever witnessed. (Getty)

With five World Cup spots up for grabs, eight nations separated by two points in two independent regions, and five simultaneous kickoffs in South America followed by three in Central America 30 minutes later, Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 promised to be one of the most dramatic nights in qualifying history. Two-and-a-half hours later, it was overshadowed stateside by a colossal, embarrassing failure. And that, unfortunately, is how it will be remembered. But up and down the Americas, it will also be remembered as one of the wildest nights soccer has ever provided. Perhaps the craziest in 24 years. This is the story of those two-and-a-half hours; of heartbreak, of euphoria, and most of all, of impossible absurdity.

Messi the magician – and the savior

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If the story when the night was put to bed was the Yanks, the story entering it, even in the United States, was Lionel Messi and Argentina. They sat outside the CONMEBOL top five. If there was to be an earth-shaking failure, it was to come out of Quito.

And it’s there, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, that we begin. Because within a minute of kickoff up in the Andes, Messi and Argentina were behind. Stunned by Ecuador 40 seconds in:

It was as if the entire continent was stunned too, because the first halves throughout South America were fairly dormant. But Argentina could not afford to be. It was headed out. So it turned to Leo. And fortunately for the 37 million Argentines who have an unnecessarily complex relationship with this man who should be worshiped as a deity, he is a genius.

He equalized on 12 minutes, and sped toward the goal to recoup the ball without breaking stride. He put Argentina ahead eight minutes later. He would eventually complete his hat-trick to send Argentina to Russia.

Teammates mobbed him at the final whistle. Argentine newspapers likened him to the Messiah.

“Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina,” manager Jorge Sampaoli said after the match. “But football owed the World Cup to Messi.”

The U.S. falls behind

With first halves fizzling out down south, attention turned to CONCACAF. Around that time, the first goal went in. And it was a howler:

Omar Gonzalez’s own goal put the U.S. behind. Fans reacted with unease. But not yet worry, in part because Honduras had gone behind at home against Mexico. Even with a loss, the U.S. would qualify if Honduras and Panama failed to win. They’d receive no worse than a playoff place as long as one failed to win. So even at 1-0 down, the Yanks were comfortable.

Honduras got back on level terms 17 minutes later. And the U.S. fell further behind to a 40-yard golazo. But before halftime, Mexico had retaken a lead in San Pedro Sula. Costa Rica had taken one in Panama. And the U.S. was two goals in both games away from danger.

Chile in trouble

Coming out of halftime in South America, a rapid-fire Paulinho-Gabriel Jesus double put Chile 2-0 down in Brazil. But around the same time, James Rodriguez fired Colombia into a 1-0 lead in Peru. That meant Colombia and Argentina were, as things stood, joining Brazil and Uruguay in Russia, with Chile clinging to the playoff place.

But the Chileans knew that one goal in either Lima or Asunción – where Paraguay could leap into at least fifth with a win over Venezuela – would eliminate them. And that goal came via a peculiar mental error.

Peru’s direct indirect free kick

With 14 minutes to play, Peru was awarded an indirect free kick. So when Paolo Guerrero lined up to hit it, Peruvian TV nearly lost its mind. “¡Es tiro libre indirecto, Paolo!” a commentator said. “¡Tiro libre INDIRECTO, tiro libre indirecto, tiro libre indirecto!” Guerrero, obviously, didn’t listen. And …

“¡Gol! ¡La tocó! ¡La tocó! ¡La tocó! ¡La tocó!” He touched it! He touched it! He touched it! He touched it!

Colombian TV had a different, more delayed reaction that conveyed disbelief:

Had Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina not touched it, the goal would have been disallowed. The Peruvians would probably be out of World Cup contention. Instead, they were level. But the real absurdity was still to come.

Meanwhile, in CONCACAF … madness

Christian Pulisic pulled a goal back for the United States. But chaos started swirling elsewhere. It brought distressing news for the U.S., in the form of two of the most improbable goals you will ever see. First, in Honduras, by way of the crossbar and the noggin of Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa:

And then in Panama, by way of an utterly appalling refereeing decision:

Viewers were dumbfounded. But before there was time to raise a fuss, attention shifted back to Honduras, where the hosts had turned the match on its head and taken a lead. Suddenly, only one Panama goal separated the U.S. from elimination.

Peru-Colombia shenanigans, and Falcao’s scheming

Back to South America! Paraguay went behind in the 84th minute to Venezuela, leaving it in need of two late strikes. So with Peru level against Colombia, the onus was on Chile. As things stood, Alexis Sanchez and compañeros were going out on goal differential. But they trailed Peru for fifth place by just a single goal. If they could halve the deficit, they would sneak into the fifth-place playoff against New Zealand.

So up came Claudio Bravo from the back. But astray went a set piece. And down the field went Brazil, with Bravo out of his net. Jesus made it 3-0. Chile’s hopes lay with Colombia. Only a Peru loss could keep the Chileans alive.

But back in Lima, the two sides had been preparing for this. They knew the opportunity to conspire could present itself. They had deviously tried to delay first-half kickoff, and stayed in their halftime dressing rooms as long as possible. So as the closing stages approached, the match still locked at one goal apiece, players caught word of the goals in Paraguay and Brazil. Falcao, in particular, caught word. And it appears he spread it:

Colombia boss Jose Pekerman denied accusations that there had been a pact to play to a draw. But neither team appeared particularly intent on grabbing a winner in added time. And, both rushed out onto the field in celebration at the final whistle. Colombia to Russia. Peru – which has not qualified for a World Cup since 1982 – to the playoff. Chile out, the international career of Arturo Vidal over, a golden generation having passed into history.

Pandemonium in Panama

With South America settled, CONCACAF’s three contenders were on knife-edges. Heading into the final 10 minutes, Honduras was going to the World Cup. The U.S. was going to a playoff against Australia. Panama’s World Cup dreams would be cruelly denied once again.

But all parties knew one goal could change everything. A Panamanian winner would send them to Russia, and send the U.S. crashing out. A Panama winner and a U.S. equalizer, though, would eliminate Honduras, and put the U.S. in third place after all. And if Mexico were kind enough to return San Zusi’s favor from four years ago, the U.S. would also be going to the World Cup.

Alas, one goal arrived. And it was the nightmare scenario for the Americans. It was Roman Torres. It was wild scenes in Panama City:

With two minutes plus stoppage time to kill off, then, Panama resorted to some innovative time-wasting tactics. An unused substitute came sprinting down the touchline as Costa Rica rushed to take an attacking throw-in. He blasted the ball into the crowd. It was remarkable stuff:

And minutes later, as Pulisic’s eyes welled up in Trinidad and U.S. players sunk to the turf, Panama City erupted.

In the aftermath, American pitchforks were reared. Public inquests began. And rightly so. But all of that obscured a night whose chaos should have been joyous. Whose chaos was joyous for many. And whose drama and tension won’t soon be forgotten in the Western Hemisphere.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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