You thought Mexico advancing to the Gold Cup semifinals on a bullshit penalty was peak CONCACAF? You, my friend, must be new to world soccer’s most consistently embarrassing continental confederation.
Here is a list of things you regularly see in matches between CONCACAF opponents: terrible refereeing decisions benefitting larger countries, terrible refereeing decisions period, awful fans, deplorable pitch conditions, sweltering humidity. So a July game in Atlanta, on a turf field outfitted with grass, with a Mexican win desperately wanted, and the notoriously throw-happy Mexican fans, was probably never going to proceed rationally. It’s not that CONCACAF is rigged, necessarily, just that an alarming amount of funny business occurs on a regular basis, to the point that it might be better if it were rigged because at least that would mean SOMEBODY is capable of controlling something.
Mexico begin the game as the stronger team, with Panama bunkering down and hoping to hit on the counter. In the 24th minute, earlier than expected, CONCACAF refereeing strikes:
If I were drunk or blind or had never watched sports before you could convince me that’s Luis Tejada leading with an elbow and deserving of a red card. But I am none of those things, and that’s a terrible call. A red for lightly whacking a guy in the face, and then him theatrically falling to the floor, called by a referee 50 yards away from the action?
The Panamanians regroup, and for the rest of the first half and the beginning of the second look like the better team, able to create attacking opportunities without driving forward suicidally, while Mexico don’t really look like it has any strategy. Hope Andres Guardado does something sweet, I guess.
And then! A Panama corner kick:
This clip leaves out the shower of cups filled with god knows what thrown by the (presumably) Mexican fans that rains down on the field.
The match resumes. Mexico attack, nothing. It’s the 65th minute. Mexico attack, nothing. It’s the 75th minute. Mexico attack, nothing. It’s the 85th minute. Mexico attack, something! Well, not really something, but something to CONCACAF referee Mark Geiger (an American):
For those scoring at home that’s Panamanian defender Román Torres getting fouled, falling on the ball and barely touching it with his arm in a non-intentional way that in no way affected it, and getting called for the penalty.
What happens next wasn’t exactly clear on my broadcast, and I haven’t read anything that explains it well. It seems that Mexican fans were raining more cups down on the Panamanian players, and the Mexican bench was talking some trash, causing the (understandably) extremely frustrated Panamanian players to lose their shit. I even saw some Panamanian sub pick up one of the bottles thrown onto the field and chuck it back into the stands.
After a 10-minute-plus delay, Andres Guardado buries a penalty into the back of the net.
For those hoping the final act of this match features justice or revenge, well, sports aren’t morality plays. Panama finally show their fatigue at playing a man down for three quarters of the match, and near the end of the first extra time period Torres finally gets called for a legitimate penalty, after he clumsily clangs into Javier Orozco. Guardado slots home his second penalty of the match, and the final 15 minutes is a formality.
Mexico have now advanced farther than the United States in this tournament, and done so while looking much, much worse. Mexico couldn’t even win its group, drawing both Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago. In the quarterfinals their only goal was that penalty gift from the CONCACAF gods, converted by Guardado in the 124th minute, and now they have to rely on a bullshit red card, a bullshit penalty, and a justified penalty to beat the more impressive Panama.
It’s been a brutal two years for Panama. In 2013 they were set to advance to a playoff against New Zealand with a World Cup berth on the line, until Graham Zusi scored a meaningless (for the United States) 92nd minute goal, allowing Mexico to make the playoff and ultimately qualify for the World Cup. And now this game, with a Gold Cup final and perhaps Confederations Cup spot on the line, they are repeatedly pulled back by incompetence.
The only consolation I can offer is that the CONCACAF winds blow every which way, and the Panamanians are surely to be on the receiving end shortly, perhaps as soon as World Cup qualifying.