Brazil v Guatemala, CONCACAF Gold Cup, February 5th 1998, Miami. Neil Wills witnessed a shock result
Every so often something comes along which imbues life with fresh meaning. Such an occurrence befell several million people simultaneously on an otherwise ordinary day in February 1998. It is sad to recount that the incident in question was of no greater import than a football match, but there you go: sometimes you have to take what you can get.
The Copa de Oro had started inauspiciously for Guatemala with a tedious goalless draw against El Salvador. Brazil, the guest team in this competition for north and central America, had also been held 0-0 by a Wimbledonesque Jamaica. Lacking Jamaica’s physical menace, the feeling back home was that restricting the World Cup holders to three goals would constitute a moral victory. Others foretold cataclysm.
When Brazil were drawn in our group a letter appeared in the press seriously calling on the football federation to pull the team out and thus “avoid national humiliation”. A nation not overly brimming with confidence, then, and with good reason: Guatemala have never gone to the World Cup finals and have only ever won one trophy – the Norceca Cup in 1967.
The day of reckoning arrived. No Ronaldo in the starting line-up but Brazil were ostensibly warming up for France 98 so Taffarel was there, as were Romário, Edmundo and the then most expensive player in the world, Denílson. Guatemala, without a World Cup to prepare for, graciously deigned to field a full-strength team. Perhaps more importantly, they ran out in their “lucky” white strip.
The first 30 seconds augured ill. Brazil kicked off, passed it among themselves at will, and coursed towards goal. Germán “El Chino” Ruano came to the rescue, taking the ball cleanly off Junior. Then a very strange thing happened. Instead of pumping the ball forward he passed it a few yards to Memín Funes who chipped it perfectly up to Valencia who trapped it and laid it off to Rojas, and so it continued. Before a disbelieving nation, Guatemala’s first move in its very first competitive match against Campeones del Mundo Brazil involved no fewer than six players. The impertinence! Obviously Mauro Silva thought so too because he felt obliged to bring the move to a halt by scything down Machón on the half-way line. The team could have walked off the pitch there and then and we’d still have welcomed them home as heroes. However, ambition knows no bounds and they went on to force the first corner of the game and make its first attempt on goal.
Of course, such a rich seam could not last indefinitely and Brazil countered with a Romário dive (a move he was to perfect an hour later). Brazil then had the ball in the net as Edmundo crossed and Nelson Cáceres bundled it past his own keeper. Zinho, who had certainly been no more than a few yards away at the time, whirled around and ludicrously claimed he’d got a touch, fooling no one but the referee, who promptly decided the goal must therefore have been offside. Poetic justice if ever there was.
So half-time, 0-0, and the boys looking so good that a 3-0 defeat no longer looked beyond them. The best contest on the pitch was also coming to the boil. The protagonists were Denílson, the then football deity for whose services Real Betis had just paid £22 million, and Ruano, a man whom I had not long before passed outside a local shopping centre looking bewildered. Ruano is stocky and squinty – imagine Chopper Harris with a goatee and an attitude – unknown outside Guatemala and, unlike Denílson, the television company hadn’t managed to get his name right on the team sheet. Needless to say, he so outplayed his opponent that the Brazilian ended up kicking lumps out of him.
With the match improbably scoreless, it was left to the second-half substitutions to remind us of the gulf between the two sides. Brazil’s were Elber (Bayern Munich) and Russo (Parma). Guatemala brought on Herrera (Telephone Company) and “El Pando” Ramírez (Council). But in the 78th minute Romário at last timed his dive right (the reverse angle camera recording his artistry to perfection) and was duly awarded a penalty which he tucked away with an arrogant swagger.
So that was that: we’d lost. It was one thing to fantasise that we could hold out for a goalless draw, quite another to imagine us scoring. For a few minutes settees were kicked and the precise amount of the referee’s bung speculated upon, and then we settled down, resigned to defeat just when Mother Football had begun to waft glory our way.
The 90th minute came and went. We got a free-kick on the edge of the area. Hope, not dead but merely sleeping, rose again, only to die as the shot was deflected off the wall. Martin Machón trotted over to take the corner. It was the 94th minute. If requested (which happens less often than I would like), I can quote you word for word the next 37 seconds delivered by the Guatemalan commentator because I have it endlessly repeated on a tape which resides permanently in a Walkman hanging in my bathroom. It goes like this: “Zagallo wants it to end. He’s nervous is Mario. Here comes the corner. Machón hits it… it goes across… header… GOL??? GOL??!! GOOOOOOOOOOOOOL! Gooooooool! Goool! Gol! Gol! Gol! Goo-llll! Goool! Gol! Gooool! Gol-Gol-Gol-Gol-Gol de Guatemala! Gool! Gool! Go-ollll!”
By the eighth “Gooool” it’s obvious the commentator is weeping uncontrollably. (Though I hate to admit it, over a year later it still does the same to me.) He then can’t get over the scoreline, repeating endlessly. “Yes, you heard me, you heard me right: Guatemala uno, Brazil uno!!!!! This is MADNESS!!!”
Watching the video now, it still surprises me when we score. The tiny J-C Plata pops up from a little hole in the ground, heads it down, it bounces, hits the post – and goes in. What’s more, in the replays it does exactly the same thing: in slow-motion, real time, freeze frame, from each and every angle – even Euro-cheese backing tracks can’t stop the ball from nestling in the net, astonished at how it could have got there.
It is apparent that Plata is equally shocked. After going completely beserk for a bit he takes on the kind of dazed trance you normally only see on the faces of people who have just shot the president. Thankfully, the game finishes exactly 43 seconds after the restart. The nation is stunned. Then in bursts into tears.
The Goal became an instant folk hero. It appeared every three minutes on television. It appeared in countless adverts. It had a song written about it. The Pope had it canonised. It was later elected president. Guatemala lost the next game to Jamaica and were eliminated from the competition. No one really noticed. After all, WE, yes we, little Guatemala, WE had just beaten Brazil 1-1. We haven’t stopped crying since.
From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month