The heart of SEC football country got a first-hand look at the sometimes misguided passion of world football Wednesday night at the Georgia Dome.
Mexico defeated Panama 2-1 in the semifinals of the Gold Cup, but not without several calls — one on a penalty kick in the 88th minute that tied the game — that incensed the losing team into charging the referee numerous times, which incensed the fans of Mexico into throwing trash onto the field, and which bundled into a 10-minute long scuffle during the game between players, coaches and other staff of both teams.
“I have no clue whether the call was right or not, but I could sure see the passion that countries have for their soccer,” longtime Atlanta resident and former Braves executive Bob Hope said. “This was the liveliest sports event I have ever witnessed in Atlanta, including the World Series. Incredible passion. It bodes well for the future of soccer here. Anyone who attended will be back. Sort of makes Georgia football seem very tame.”
There were many ugly scenes in the game, but a moment at the final whistle may have been the worst.
As soon as referee Mark Geiger signaled the end of the game, a Panamanian soccer player sprinted toward him, knees bent and arms out in what looked like a threatening pose.
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Geiger’s back went straight, and he took a step back. Assistant referees and security sprinted to protect him. ESPN soccer reporter Jeff Carlisle said he couldn’t remember fearing for a referee’s safety before last night.
Geiger, a U.S. citizen, was under fire all night. First, he showed a Panamanian player a straight red card after he inadvertently hit a Mexican player in the head with his elbow as they were competing to head a ball. The player, Luis Tejada, refused to leave the field and went nose-to-nose with Geiger. After he finally calmed down and headed toward the tunnel, fans of Mexico began to pelt him with debris.
Then, in the 88th minute with 10-man Panama clinging to a 1-0 lead, Roman Torres fell on the ball in the penalty box. He didn’t appear to touch the ball with his arms, but Geiger didn’t hesitate to point to the spot for a penalty.
Mexico wouldn’t have been in the semifinals if not for a controversial penalty call that helped them defeat Costa Rica in the final minute of the quarterfinals.
There were too many similarities and too much at stake to make it seem like a coincidence that it was happening again.
Panama’s players and coaches went crazy. A group ran at Geiger. Others began to gesticulate toward Mexico’s coaches and players on their bench.
Trash once began to rain down onto the field.
Amid the ugly sideline scene, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera was inches away from a Panama player as they screamed at each other.
“The scenes were incredible and ultimately wretched,” Fox Soccer editor Kyle McCarthy wrote. “Each subsequent incident increased the rancor between the teams and intensified the response within the building. Once the referee pointed to the spot to award the suspect late penalty to send the game to extra time, the night devolved into complete and utter chaos.”
After the game, Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez said that the tournament’s happiness was lost and that it was a stolen goal.
Herrera, who defended the call in the controversial quarterfinal, admitted that Wednesday’s game-tying penalty wasn’t deserved, the refereeing wasn’t good and he felt bad for Panama.
But Panama’s players weren’t done. They photographed themselves after creating a crude sign that read “CONCACAF Thieves.”
Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl said it was the ugliest game he’s seen since he began covering the sport in 1996.
“From the horrible officiating to the fans throwing projectiles at the Panamanian players to the fights in the stands to the Panama players putting the referee’s safety in danger at the final whistle, I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a domestic game,” he said.