Thirty years and one month ago, my wife Morgen was born in Panama City. More accurately, she was born in the Canal Zone, the daughter of a US Army colonel. The taxi drivers called her a Zonia, a product of American interests in the area. In a childhood that included stops in five states, Italy, Venezuela and three different tours in Panama, four years at the crossroads of Central and South America constituted a long time. After moving away during junior high school in 1997, she hadn't been back to Panama, so we decided to spend a week for her birthday. Coincidentally, the week overlapped with a visit from the U.S. National Team for the final 2014 World Cup qualifier.
By now everyone knows what the stakes were: a Panama victory over the US and a Mexico loss in Costa Rica would send La Roja to the playoff against New Zealand. Any other combination of results and Panama would not have a chance at its first ever World Cup berth. Through a fortuitous series of connections that concluded with our holding a pair of tickets by Monday evening, we scheduled our Tuesday to allow for plenty of time to get to the Estadio Rommel Fernandez from the old town where we were staying. Though it was less than ten miles away, the notorious Panama City traffic combined with many thousands headed to the same place meant we needed to provide several hours to make our way and not feel rushed.
Our taxi dropped us off as close to the stadium as was allowed by the submachine gun-wielding military, which was on the other side of the Roberto Duran arena in an unlit neighborhood. As we wound through various unavailable parking lots toward the stadium lights, more red kits came into focus. Finally we reached a small practice pitch being used by Alianza FC, currently seventh in Panama's top flight. While the club team did crunches and pushups, we joined an amorphous group that resembled a line toward the stadium.
Only after fifteen minutes of slowly inching forward could we see what we were in line for: more uniformed military ahead, this time patting down every entrant. What we didn't realize until we got close to the front of the line was that we were waiting in the line designated for women and girls. When I was made aware of this fact, and left the line to join the men several lines over, Morgen joined in the laughter of a dozen women close enough to realize my mistake. This realization also explained why just ahead, hundreds of men were being held back by yet more armed, beret-wearing military units. Each was trying to get close enough to the front so his wife, sister or daughter could easily find him. After a quick pair of hands over my body and a curious look at my clearly American appearance, yet without any U.S. colors, I too joined the horde of overanxious men.
After Morgen was handled by a female army member, we went searching for our entry gate. While she speaks more than enough Spanish to order food and direct a taxi, figuring out exactly which gate was ours eclipsed our limited vocabulary. Eventually a stadium employee took pity on us and helped us into the ground, after much grumbling and concern on our parts.
Once inside, the field and running track opened up before us under the intense white floodlights. Despite holding just 29,000 seats, the stadium seemed immense. Our section, dedicated for away supporters, as well as quite a few embassy employees and other expatriates, was surrounded by armed military units despite very little evidence of hostility among the Panamanian fans. We took up a position above the gathering American Outlaws but within eyesight of the giant television screens in the luxury boxes.
Prior to Tuesday's game, the only national team game I had ever attended was in Portland when the US hosted and defeated Belize in the Gold Cup. Though I had of course seen plenty of internationals on television, I was unprepared for the vim and volume of the host's national anthem. Every single person in the stadium, save our section, belted out the anthem of the 110-year old nation.
Finally, the game kicked off right at 8:30pm local time, just as heavy rain began pouring down again. The previous night, a torrential storm had battered the capital with the rain only subsiding around lunch time. Consequently, the field was a mess. Deep divots were visible from even our seats in the upper stand and players slipped and slid from the opening kick.
Immediately after kick off, a secondary competition commenced with bands in the east and west stands vying for the right to lead the entire stadium in song and dance. The unending beats of massive drums were the baseline of our match soundtrack.
Just 18 minutes into the game, Gaby Torres opened scoring and the stadium erupted. Though only 18,000 ventured out to watch La Roja, the sound and intensity was something I had never experienced. Not only was it loud but the celebration was sustained for several minutes as Panamanians realized they actually had a chance to pull off what would have been an improbable victory.
Six minutes later, during a standard sequence of play, the people above us in the luxury boxes began cheering wildly. Soon they were joined by delirious fans across the field in the east stand. We quickly looked up to the TV screens in the closest box to see Bryan Ruiz celebrating in San Jose. Costa Rica had scored and suddenly everyone in Panama City knew it. "¡Sí se puede! ¡Sí se puede!" rained down from every curve of the Estadio Rommel Fernandez with a level of sincerity I'd never before heard. The drums were immediately no louder than a heartbeat as the sounds of exuberant hope collided over the field.
Mexico quickly equalized but before the US could score, Alvaro Saborio put Costa Rica back in front. The earlier scenes were repeated as less than 30 minutes separated Panama from the playoff with New Zealand. Michael Orozco scored in the 64th minute for the US but after a momentary pause, the noise returned with even greater volume. Panama could do it, the fans knew it. And with Mexico losing, even the US fans in front of us started rooting for the Panamanians to score a second and eliminate the hated El Tri.
Closer the game edged toward finality as we kept one eye on the luxury boxes and one on the field. For twenty minutes Panama tried to send tired legs forward until finally Luis Tejada entered as the final substitute in the 78th minute. Five minutes later, the stadium was in rapture. Tejada, who once missed a penalty in the Gold Cup final against the US, streaked into the box and pounced on a bouncing ball, smacking it into the back of the net before tearing off his jersey and darting for the west stand. We leapt from our seats with the crowd, cheering and shouting and finding tears in our eyes. Even trying to put that feeling into words seems futile.
For eight minutes the drums somehow beat louder, the crowd repeatedly screamed "¡Sí se puede!" and everyone held on to the impossible notion that Panama would be the ones with the dramatic goal this time. And then suddenly it was all over. Brad Davis crossed in from the left, directly in front of us, and Graham Zusi headed past Jaime Penedo in the 91st minute. After nearly two hours of constant drums and noise and fanfare, the Estadio Rommel Fernandez was silent. Even the US fans in front of us were stunned into disappointed quiet. We could hear the US players celebrating on the field as an overwhelming sense of sadness swallowed the stadium, including our section.
Aron Johannsson finished the game off moments later, but it barely registered. The unbelievable experience came to such a halt that when the final whistle blew, many simply staggered out of the stadium like zombies. There was no confrontation between fans, barely even talking as we made our way to the exits. It was as complete a reversal of emotion as is imaginable.
We were lucky enough to catch a ride back to town with a Puerto Rican we met at half-time, who had just moved to Panama six months prior. It was his first ever live soccer match. While I'm looking forward to many more in my life, part of me thought, as we sped down the empty, depressed streets of Panama City, that maybe it wouldn't be so bad if that was the only game I'd ever seen in my life.