World Cup qualification was on the line for several teams playing around the world this past week. The U.S. men’s team was already home free, or rather already assured of a trip to Brazil next summer. Bill Littlefield spoke with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl about why one of their games mattered anyway.
BL: Tuesday’s dramatic match in Panama city had serious consequences for Panama and for one other side that has not been on particularly good terms with the US team since, well, Grant Wahl, since forever?
GW: Since forever essentially, Bill, or at least since the U.S. started beating Mexico in recent years. When you go to games in Mexico, the U.S. national anthem gets booed heartily before every game.
BL: Panama had a lot at stake Tuesday night. A win would have earned them a playoff series with New Zealand, with a World Cup berth at stake. Panama led by a goal going into extra time. What happened?
GW: You had this bizarre situation where Mexico needed help from the United States, its archrival. They needed the U.S. to score a goal late in that game, and that’s exactly what happened, Bill. The U.S., Graham Zusi scores in the second minute of stoppage time, which saved Mexico and allowed them to have a chance to qualify still for the World Cup.BL: What have you heard about how Mexican fans and the Mexican players responded to the US win, which, of course, as you say, put Mexico in a position to book a ticket to Brazil, assuming they can knock off New Zealand.
GW: Well, that’s about the most humiliating thing that can happen to a Mexican player, to have to rely on the skill of the United States to save them from World Cup elimination. It’s almost as bad as losing to the United States in the 2002 World Cup, like Mexico did. The TV Azteca announcer in Mexico had this remarkable tirade against the Mexican players.
BL: Has that been a common response to Tuesday night’s result or was this guy off in the stratosphere by himself somewhere?
GW: I think he does actually speak for a lot of Mexican fans, who are just perplexed and embarrassed about the performance of their national team in World Cup qualifying. Mexico has only won two of their 10 qualifying games this year and never should have been in this position for a team who just about a year and a half ago a lot of people including myself were listing among the top six or seven teams that could win the World Cup, and the wheels have fallen off south of the border.
That said, I now think Mexico is going to make it to the World Cup. They have to beat New Zealand in this playoff, which won’t be as easy as some people are saying, but I think they can do it. And there’s a history of teams that really struggle to make the World Cup actually doing well once they get to the World Cup, so all is not lost for Mexico quite yet.
BL: Going forward, Grant, how important is it for the US to have won the last two qualifiers after they had already piled up enough points to guarantee that they would be competing in Brazil?
GW: Well, I think in the big picture it’s sort of meaningless, and yet at the same time I think that’s something that’s a real positive. To get wins in their last two games, especially at Panama, which needed to beat the US to have any chance of qualifying for the World Cup, and for the US players to score the goal late, I think is a good sign that they’re honest professionals, especially when their archrival Mexico would have been eliminated.