The scene at RFK Stadium went from festive to temporarily chaotic on Sunday evening, as Panama downed El Salvador, 5-3 on penalty kicks, following a controversial tying goal in the final minute of regulation in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal.
The tens of thousands of blue-and-white-clad Salvadoran supporters among the sellout crowd of 45,423 transformed the stadium into a pulsating explosion of noise, flags waving and stands swaying back and forth, following Rodolfo Zelaya’s penalty kick goal in the 78th minute, which looked as though it would be the game-winner.
That quickly changed when Panama’s Luis Tejada headed a ball toward the goal line following a frantic back-and-forth inside the Salvadorans’ box in the 90th minute. El Salvador goalkeeper Miguel Montes snagged the ball out of the air, but the referees ruled it crossed the line. Video replays did not show conclusively if the entire ball crossed the line.
“El Salvador’s elimination has been conditioned by human error made by the referees,” El Salvador Coach Ruben Israel said through an interpreter. “Which is okay, because they’re human and they can make mistakes.”
Panama Coach Julio Dely Valdes, also through an interpreter, countered that comment.
“We will not talk about the referees’ mistakes,” Dely Valdes said. “I didn’t even want to mention it because this game was very suspiciously [called] against Panama. If anyone knows a little bit about soccer, they know that the refs were against us.”
After the controversial goal, the situation at the stadium that has become a home away from home for the Salvadoran team began to unravel — at least momentarily.
Bottles were thrown onto the field in throngs. A fan ran a loop across the turf before being corralled when he caught his foot hurdling an advertisement behind Panama’s goal. Two red cards were handed out because of a scuffle after the final whistle fo regulation — one to Panama’s Blas Perez and another to El Salvador captain Luis Anaya.
When order was finally restored, the teams struggled to create chances as they tired.
El Salvador briefly brought the stadium back to life with a near-goal in the 120th minute, but Steve Purdy couldn’t get a shot off because of sliding defenders, and Osael Romero’s last-ditch shot was parried away by a Panamanian in a scrum in the box.
In the five penalty-kick rounds, Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo made one save — on the first kick, sent right up the middle by Dennis Alas — and Panama converted all five of its kicks, the last by Tejada, to advance to the semifinals.
Panama, which upset the United States, 2-1, in the group stage, will face the Americans a second time on Wednesday in Houston.
“We’re not going to face the same U.S. rival as we faced in the last match,” Dely Valdes said.
Before his second-half penalty, Zelaya had already stepped to the spot once, 55 minutes prior, and saw it gobbled up by Penedo. But he again stepped forward to take the shot when he earned the penalty in the 77th minute.
On his second effort, Zelaya emphatically buried the shot into the upper netting, turning RFK into a raucous celebration.
Tejada’s last-ditch goal shut down any victory parties for the Salvadoran faithful, however, and eventually his penalty kick sent them home.