Thursday 20 August 2020, 09:10

Ten memorable moments in Concacaf qualifying

  • We recall some unforgettable moments from Concacaf qualifying

  • Deon Burton, Paul Caligiuri, Carlo Costly and Roman Torres feature

  • An unbelievable late twist provoked agony and ecstasy

The road to Qatar was laid out yesterday for Concacaf's 35 national teams following the Preliminary Draw for the region's qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the action to get underway.

To whet your appetite, we have trawled the archives to bring you ten memorable moments from past World Cup qualifiers featuring teams from North, Central America and the Caribbean.

Inaugural tournament

Founded in 1961, Concacaf first staged a regional qualifying event ahead of England 1966. Nine teams were divided into three groups with the top team from each section progressing to a final qualifying round. The winner of that took the region’s one available ticket to the World Cup.

That honour went to Mexico after they prevailed against Costa Rica and Jamaica in the final round. In so doing, El Tri would extend their run of consecutive World Cup appearances to five, cementing their status as the confederation’s dominant force.

'The Football War'

Back in 1969, at a time when military tensions were running high between El Salvador and Honduras, the two teams faced off in their quest to join the hosts at Mexico 1970.

El Salvador prevailed in two of the three fixtures against Honduras and advanced to the final against Haiti, where they would secure a maiden World Cup qualification. However, for reasons outside football, a war between the two countries briefly ensued, causing many to dub it 'The Football War' after their recent on-field battles.

Haiti make history

Haiti were the first team to challenge Mexico’s regional hegemony. The year was 1973 and the setting was the inaugural Concacaf Cup of Nations, which served as its qualifying event for Germany 1974.

El Tri won their group emphatically but lost momentum in the final qualifying round by opening with back-to-back draws. Haiti, who were hosting the tournament, grew in stature with the impassioned support of their fans. Led by the iconic Antoine Tassy, they won all but their final game, where they lost by a single goal to a Mexico side that produced too little, too late. Les Grenadiers secured the region’s sole berth for what to date is their only appearance on the world stage.

Haiti also managed to get their name in the record books in West Germany after striker Emmanuel Sanon ended Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff’s two-year, 1,142-minute streak without conceding a goal.

The Haiti football team during a practice session

A shot heard all around world

The qualifiers ahead of Italy 1990 had a different feel entirely. Mexico had been disqualified for fielding overage players at the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1989, throwing the qualifying race wide open.

USA, who had not been to a World Cup since Brazil 1950, were on the verge of making a return, only needing a win against Trinidad and Tobago to secure their ticket.

Picking up the ball around 35 yards from goal, Paul Caligiuri dinked it over his marker with his right foot before unleashing a long range effort with his left, which surprised the opposition keeper and ended a 40-year World Cup drought.

No goals but plenty of emotion

With Rene Simoes at the helm, Jamaica set their sights on a place at France 1998, the first World Cup to feature 32 teams. The Brazilian coach rose to the challenge and Deon Burton, dubbed 'The Ronaldo of the Caribbean', was the man they had to thank after Jamaica had looked out of the running in the final hexagonal group.

In the final fixture, and with Costa Rica hot on their heels, the Reggae Boyz put in a stellar performance against leaders Mexico to secure a 0-0 draw and book their first, and to date only, World Cup qualification. Rarely if ever has a goalless draw produced such excitement.

Deon Burton of Jamaica celebrates after the World Cup qualifier against Mexic

The Aztecazo

Mexico experienced one of the saddest days in their long history on 16 June 2001, at a time when El Tri were already struggling in a bid to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002.

Unfortunately, on that June day things got even more complicated. Until then, Mexico had never lost an official game at the Estadio Azteca. However, a brave Costa Rica side shook off the weight of history with goals from Rolando Fonseca and Hernan Medford proving that not even the mighty Azteca was immune from the bitter taste of defeat.

Promise fulfilled

On 6 September 2013, it was the turn of Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly to inflict a second official home defeat on Mexico.

Twelve years after the Costa Rica upset, Honduras repeated the scoreline. "When I was a kid watching Honduras lose to Mexico, I would say to my mom, 'When I‘m playing for the national team, I’ll give you a shock win in the Azteca, I promise you’,” Costly would reveal years later.

Carlo Costly (Honduras)

120 seconds

It looked as if it was Mexico’s fate to miss out on a place at Brazil 2014. El Tri were back in fifth place in the final hexagonal and not even in line to make the intercontinental play-offs. That ticket was in the hands of Panama.

But much can happen in the space of two minutes, in life and in football. With 90 minutes on the clock on the night of 15 October 2013, Los Canaleros were leading USA 2-1. But quickfire goals by Graham Zusi (90+1) and Aron Johannsson (90+2), provided the cruellest of late twists to send Mexico into the play-off at Panama’s expense.

A Russian reward

Fortunately for Panama, their recompense would come on 10 October 2017. That was the date of the final fixtures in the hexagonal. Panama had the difficult task of beating Costa Rica if they were capitalise on the surprising news that Trinidad and Tobago, who had been in last place for most of the hexagonal, were beating USA.

As fate would have it, Los Ticos went in front courtesy of a Johan Venegas goal. Gabriel Torres then levelled to give Los Canaleros hope but, as the clock ticked down, nerves began to fray.

With time almost up, Roman Torres wrote his name into the history books: the defender, showing immense heart and courage, won the race for a ball in the area, before rifling his first touch high into the net to send his side to Russia 2018.

Panamanian Roman Torres, who scored the goal of the victory, jubilates the qualification 

The COVID Crisis

Undoubtedly, 2020 will be remembered as the year in which the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic. Football was not exempt and suffered major disruption. Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying fixtures had to be rescheduled and the competition format altered. Even so, the football community of North, Central America and the Caribbean has adapted to the new times we live in and has shown that with unity anything is possible.

Photo of Preliminary Draw for Concacaf FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualifiers