When I tell people I am from Latin America I usually get the follow-up question of how good is your team in soccer(especially during the World Cup). As a Nicaraguan that conversation usually leads to an uncomfortable conversation. Unlike our rivals to the south, Costa Rica who have qualified for the World Cup four times, Nicaragua has never come close to grazing the world stage. The biggest tournament Nicaragua has qualified for is the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which is a biennale tournament that host the best teams from North America, Central America, and Caribbean regions. Nicaragua has qualified for three Gold Cups in 2009, 2017, and 2019. And while their performance in the 2019 Cup is yet to be seen, Nicaragua is yet to win a single match in the tournament. Both previous times they have been eliminated in the group stage without even putting up a point. But the most historic moments in soccer, sports in general as a matter of fact, comes from the Davids defeating the Goliaths. And it is that story that got Nicaragua to the 2017 Gold Cup.
It is the 28th of March, 2017. Nicaragua had somehow managed to make it to the playoffs between the 5th place Central America team and the 5th place Caribbean team and now found themselves in their home stadium on the second leg of the match. But their opponents where soccer giants compared to them. Haiti had struggled in the Caribbean Cup and end up getting 5th place behind Martinique, French Guiana, Jamaica, and Curaçao. But unlike their opponents in the playoff games, Haiti had a record to be proud of. They had qualified for the World Cup in 1974 and had qualified for the Gold Cup 14 times, going on to win it all in 1973. And after going up 3-1 in the first leg of the 2017 playoff for the Gold Cup it seemed like they had all but secured their 15th appearance.
After a scoreless 80 minutes of play, Haiti had all but sealed their Gold Cup spot. Nicaragua had been doing a good job of attacking but the Haitian defense wouldn’t budge. With the game quickly coming to the close most would expect to see fans leaving the stadium in order to beat the rush out of the parking lot. But the stands remained packed with people who believed in the team and in the blue and white. And in the 85th minute, their faith paid off. A Haitian defender brings down the Nicaraguan forward resulting in a penalty kick. The stands explode in a roar of cheer and happiness. There is only one man on the Nicaraguan team who the fans look to in order to inch Nicaragua closer to victory; Juan Barrera. Barrera is arguably the best player to come out of Nicaragua. He is the first Nicaraguan to play in Europe and had competed in the top divisions all across Latin America, including Guatemala and Venezuela. Barrera steps up to the penalty mark as calm as ever. With a few strides, he launches the ball to the back of the net making it 2-3 on aggregate. The stadium roars with emotions as fans drop to their knees thanking God for his deliverance of Juan Barrera. With victory being one goal away the team is fired up and ready to make history.
Time is not on the side of Nicaragua. With just 4 minutes left in the match scoring another goal seems almost impossible. One thing was for certain, however, Nicaragua was not going to give up. As soon as the referee blows for Haiti to take out the ball, Nicaragua comes with a high-pressure defense. They are able to gain possession of the ball and looks to a quick counter-attack. Daniel Cadena looks up the field and spots none other than Barrera making an open run for the goal. Cadena places the ball right above Barrera’s head and as the Hattian goalkeeper rushes to punch away the threat Barrera gives the ball a slight tap with his head that sends it over the diving keeper and into the back of the net. The score now reads 3-3 on aggregate with Nicaragua moving forward on away goals. In the span of about five minutes, Barrera had turned an impossible situation into a reality. And somehow he still had more to give for his country. In the 89th minute, Barrera once again received an open looked and slotted past the goalkeeper. His third goal in just eight minutes. Fans are crying as Barrera runs around the stadium waving his jersey in celebration. David had beaten Goliath.
Below is the link for the video of the match. I strongly recommend watching it to hear the Nicaraguan commentators talk about the game. Even if you don’t speak Spanish the message is clear. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kc0fwE5C27g
I found this article and the account of Nicaragua to be very fascinating and quite relatable. My family originates from both Pakistan and India, and both countries have never played in the World Cup. Ironically, soccer still remains a very popular sport. In Pakistan alone, after field hockey and cricket, association football is the most popular sport. As a result, when it is time for the World Cup, people do not necessarily have a team to root for but want to avidly follow it. Thus, almost the default for most people tends to be countries that have historically won the most World Cups, such as Brazil. This phenomenon is common and makes complete sense; for example, in the U.S., it is common for people to support sports teams in different states or follow players. However, I wonder if people from other countries that do not qualify also find other countries to support; and if so, then what type of countries. I also wonder, what if the countries that had the best players had a politically negative relationship with the specific country you were from. Would you still follow the same methodology and be a fan of that country? Is soccer able to be the connection and allow you to bridge a connection with places you normally would feel dis-attached to?
This is a really vivid and great account of this game — I like how you capture how important a tournament like the Gold Cup can be for many CONCACAF countries who cannot really hope to play in the World Cup. And yes the energy of the commentators is amazing and contagious!