A huge day in 2014 World Cup qualifying. Four years ago, I would have been up all night watching games to update the Countdown to South Africa blog. (Perhaps the best World Cup blog seen by … almost no one!)
In this case, I woke early enough, in Abu Dhabi, to see the late games back in the western hemisphere, including Mexico’s unarguably desperate home game with Panama.
After eight games in Concacaf qualifying, Mexico had one victory. O-n-e.
They were playing Panama in Azteca Stadium, in Mexico City, and Panama was technically fourth in the hexagonal, ahead of Mexico.
And when Panama scored in the 82nd minute, to tie, it looked like the impossible — Mexico failing to finish in the top four and missing out on Brazil — was about to become possible.
Then something amazing happened.
A substitute came on after that goal, a kid named Raul Jimenez, and in the 86th minute he concocted a moment of brilliance — one that might have saved futbol-mad Mexico from a national nervous breakdown.
Here are the highlights, and what you need to see is the final goal, Jimenez’s bicycle kick from the edge of the box, while between Panama defenders.
So, instead of a tie that would have left Panama ahead in the hexagonal, via tiebreaker, and in possession of fourth — the spot that gets a playoff with New Zealand for a World Cup berth, Mexico had a win.
Mexico now is three points up on Panama, and if El Tri can manage at tie on Tuesday at Costa Rica — which has already clinched a berth – they can do no worse than the playoff. (Panama plays host to the U.S. that day, the last of Concacaf qualifying.)
Normally, from the U.S. perspective, Mexico is a team to hate. Bad sports, time-wasters, divers, cheap-shot artists, convinced they are the big dogs of Concacaf when recent history suggests they are not. Not much to like.
But when the U.S. is in, and Mexico can do nothing to interfere, the region actually is better off with Mexico in the World Cup, because all those pushes by El Tri to the World Cup second round helps explain why Concacaf has 3.5 berths. Or about one more than it probably deserves, given how many teams in the region are competent on a global stage.
And if their going to Brazil comes down to that moment of brilliance by Raul Jimenez … well, hard to argue with that.