After lopsided defeats to Belgium and England resulted in its eliminated from the tournament, the Panama national team entered the final round of the group stage of the FIFA World Cup with nothing to lose.
The opponent was Tunisia, which also had lost its first two games in Group G and would not be moving on to the knockout stage. The Northern African nation stepped on the field hoping to break a 40-year winless streak in World Cup play.
And though it was a consolation game in every sense of the term, the two national teams didn’t hold back at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk, with Panama taking a first half lead before Tunisia stormed back to score twice after intermission to win 2-1.
For Aníbal Godoy, it was his third straight start of the tournament, and the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder did his best to earn Panama’s first win in its debut World Cup appearance. Prior to the game, he let it be known that despite his nation’s early elimination, everyone on the team wanted to reward the veterans on the side with a historic result.
“Panama and our families deserve a victory,” Godoy said via Twitter. “We had a great belief of accomplishing good things, and we still have it. For some companions, it will be their last game, and there would be nothing better than saying goodbye with a victory before leaving.”
Godoy, again, was one of Panama’s main links between the defense and the offense, and on Jose Luis Rodriguez’s shot in the 33rd minute that was deflected into the net for an own goal, he had a front-row view inside the penalty area. Godoy and his teammates enthusiastically celebrated their first ever lead in a World Cup match.
At halftime, Godoy’s teammate with the Earthquakes, Harold Cummings, made his tournament debut, as head coach Hernán Darío Gómez brought in an extra defender to preserve the 1-0 lead. Cummings slotted in at centerback alongside captain Romain Torres, and the two MLS players prepared themselves for what would surely be a Tunisia tsunami in the second half.
Sure enough, the pair were under attack from the whistle, and Tunisia found its equalizer after only five minutes. The Africans would have had a second goal one minute later, but Cummings intercepted the ball at the top of the box and made a timely clearance to keep Tunisia at bay.
Of the two Quakes on the field, Cummings seemed to be the busier one, as the defender was called upon time and again to keep the game at 1-1. Godoy did his part to alleviate the pressure in the back, holding the ball in possession as often as he could, but Panama struggled in this effort.
And when Torres had to leave the game due to injury, Panama looked more vulnerable in the back, finally capitulating on a nice bit of interplay from Tunisia in the 66th minute. Cummings had a chance to break up the sequence just as it was taking form, but the centerback conservatively stayed in position inside his area, and Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri put his team ahead for good.
In the dying moments of the game, Godoy had a chance to bring Panama level, as he received a pass across the box on the left hand side. The midfielder, went for the spectacular left-footed one-touch volley, but his shot off the side of his boot traveled agonizingly wide of the post in the 93rd minute.
The final whistle soon sounded, and Tunisia relished its first World Cup victory in four decades. For Panama, the tournament debutantes, and its fans, their opportunity to leave Russia with an inspirational win came to an end. Godoy and Cummings may not have any points to show for their efforts, but they have gained an experience that will be with them forever.