(Reuters) - There was a sense of poetic justice about Roman Torres’s goal that sent Panama to their first World Cup finals and at the same time eliminated the United States.
The 32-year-old center-half has been at the heart of the Central American country’s rise from minnows of the CONCACAF region and featured in the side that came agonizingly close to qualification four years previously.
With the score tied at 1-1 in their final 2018 qualifier against Costa Rica, Torres left his defensive position and pushed himself up front without instruction from the bench.
There were just three minutes remaining when he charged on to a flicked-on header and blasted the ball past Costa Rica goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton, a moment the country’s La Prensa newspaper dubbed: ‘The Miracle of Roman’.
They were quick to draw comparisons with the misery of four years earlier, when Panama lost 3-2 to the United States on the final day of qualifying and handed Mexico a barely deserved playoff place.
“Four years ago they were tears of pain. Now they are tears of happiness. Panama is going to Russia 2018 and the hero is called Roman Torres,” declared the paper.
Torres, who has made 108 appearances for his country and plays in Major League Soccer with Seattle Sounders, was quick to note the achievement had been based on years of work.
“It’s something we’ve been working towards for a very long time. I can’t say it enough, the stadium was just pure happiness and euphoria over what happened. It was a historic moment for our country and for our national team,” he said.
In an era of heavy transfer traffic from the Americas to Europe, it is a little surprising that Torres has spent most of his career in Colombia and the United States.
He was linked with moves to England on several occasions but reported interest from Swansea City and Nottingham Forest, including a trial at the latter, failed to turn into a switch to the English game.
He has, however, enjoyed late career success in MLS and his popularity in Seattle was further enhanced in 2016 when he scored the title-winning penalty in a shoot-out against Toronto FC to win the MLS Cup, the first in Sounders history.
His debut in the World Cup finals, against Belgium on June 18 in Sochi, sets up an individual duel with Romelu Lukaku where Torres will have the chance to show the world the value of his strength and defensive nous.
Editing by Peter Rutherford