After another painful “Dos a cero” for the Mexican national team in Columbus, Ohio, last month, a satisfied, triumphant Jurgen Klinsmann took the podium at Crew Stadium. Mexico was reeling after a second consecutive loss under a second manager, Luis Fernando Tena, plugged into the challenge on short notice after Jose Manuel de la Torre was fired.
After a few questions, Klinsmann took pity on his CONCACAF rival and let his thoughts be known on the other “giant” in the region. "Mexico will qualify to the World Cup. I'm sure they'll be at Brazil 2014." The former Bayern Munich and Germany boss apparently took those words seriously, as he is now more responsible for El Tri's passage to the playoff than those wearing green, white and red.
For 10 minutes Tuesday night it was Panama, not Mexico, who were en route to New Zealand. Luis Tejada's goal put the Central Americans up 2-1 at home against a U.S. squad who really had nothing left to fight for. Costa Rica, Panama's next-door neighbor, had struck a second time and pushed Mexico to the brink, leading by an identical scoreline.
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Then it happened. Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored within 80 seconds to give the USA a last-minute win and sink Panama into oblivion. In Mexico, panic turned into a strange mixture of relief, ecstasy and embarrassment. The most popular play-by-play team in the country launched into an epic tirade and instant YouTube classic (since removed) that revealed its simultaneous joy in Spanglish.
Whatever the case and whoever is responsible, Mexico now has a lifeline. They will face New Zealand twice for a shot at the World Cup, as Klinsmann predicted.
The sequence of events sent the Internet and traditional media into a frenzy. From U.S. Soccer's Twitter account posting . . .
. . .to hundreds of memes popping up almost immediately and Mexican postgame shows nearly turning into fistfights, Oct. 15, 2013, will live on both famously and infamously in CONCACAF lore.
However unprecedented it was, Mexico, a team that has won just two of its last 10 World Cup qualifying matches, has a shot at Brazil 2014. They have a month to get better, as they did in September when Víctor Manuel Vucetich took over the team over en route to the Panama and Costa Rica matches. A month to decide whether Chicharito should start or even play. A month to answer questions about why Lucas Lobos, the Liga MX's best player, sat on Friday and Tuesday. A month to cleanse the failure.
At one point Tuesday night, the Mexican economy had lost around $600 million with El Tri's potential elimination. Sponsors both in Mexico and the United States were reaching for acid reflux medication. Somewhere in Switzerland, Sepp Blatter couldn't sleep (Mexico is one of the top markets that produces cash flow at the World Cup).
But thanks to San Graham Zusi and San Aron Johannsson, as Mexicans are now calling them, it was only a dreadful nightmare that went away as quickly and as roughly as it came to be in the first place. On Tuesday, Klinsmann felt for the Panama national team, taking pity again on another fallen rival. He upheld the notion that Panama had been valiant, played well and deserved more. He did not, however, verbally predict big things for them in the future, as he had Sept. 10 after the Mexico game.
It's not that Panama is any worse or any better than Mexico, or that Klinsmann and anyone around the U.S. team or even CONCACAF doesn't harbor hope for the surging Central Americans ... this is simply a case of one team wanting a victory more than another on a given night. As for Mexico, Klinsmann took on the role of fascinating villain. Put in comic book terms: Gotham City would be mighty boring for the Joker if he killed Batman.