When Jurien Gaari of Curacao scored the game-tying goal against Jamaica in the third minute of five added on minutes, Curacao went nuts. Fans screamed and jumped into the air, and Curacao’s players made a dog-pile, despite the fact that there were still two minutes remaining. In Los Angeles just a few hours later, Honduras continued their vicious rivalry with El Salvador, slaughtering them in a 4-0 win. The loss for El Salvador meant that Curacao was going through.
Curacao was not expected to advance to the next round. The 79th best team in the world was drawn up against Jamaica, El Salvador, and Honduras. Not only that, but they were expected to finish goalless and winless. Honduras had been a game away from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, and Curacao crashed out early in the Group Stage of qualifiers. Meanwhile, Jamaica had a team that was young but developing, with Bayer Leverkusen star Leon Bailey, as well as Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has been linked to many European teams. In the first game, a late first-half goal for El Salvador by Nelson Bonilla meant Curacao suffered a 1-0 loss. The following match, heroic keeper Eloy Room had 15 saves, and a strike from Leandro Bacuna meant a 1-0 win. Jamaica and El Salvador tied, leaving both of them at four points, Curacao at three and Honduras at zero.
With one match left, Curacao had a few ways to get in. If Curacao beat Jamaica than they were automatically in. The other possibility was if Curacao tied and Honduras beat El Salvador by more than one goal, but Jamaica was expected to win and take the group. In the 14th minute, a volley by Andre Lewis deflected off the 22-year old Shamar Nicholson and popped into the back of the net. Eloy Room had several saves after that, but Curacao didn’t create nearly enough opportunities. Jamaica failed to capitalize off many chances, including a 79th minute, open-goal missed shot by Nicholson. In the 84th minute, substitute Gino van Kessel missed a close shot, but Curacao picked up the pace and shot many more times. Finally, in the 91st minute, Van Kessel earned a close-range free kick. Bacuna’s free-kick was blocked but bounced out for a corner. Curacao’s corner kicks had not been dangerous, but a short pass was played back and Gaari scored an absolute bullet, tying up the match. Just one minute later, Elson Hooi missed a shot that would’ve booked Curacao’s spot by inches, sailing past the left post. The game ended right after Blake took the goal-kick. Curacao needed Honduras to beat El Salvador.
Honduras has a complicated history with El Salvador. A long time ago, Honduras and El Salvador welcomed each other’s citizens in with welcome arms. In 1969, however, there was the beginnings of bad blood, and when Honduras and El Salvador met for a three-game, World Cup qualifying playoff game, it got set off. The first game was in Honduras, so the fans of Honduras gathered at the hotel of the Salvadoran team and made as much noise as possible. “They arrived honking their horns. There was music, singing, screaming, doing all that to not let us sleep.” says Salvador Mariona, a former player of El Salvador, in an interview with the LA Times’ Kevin Baxter. After Honduras beat El Salvador, 1-0, part of the stadium began to riot. The following match was played in El Salvador, where Salvadorian fans copied the acts of the Honduran fans with drums. Honduras lost 3-0 and needed a win in the third game. They lost, 1-0. However, El Salvador had had enough.
Nicaragua provided weapons and supplies to Honduras, but El Salvador was too powerful. Fortunately, a cease-fire arrangement was made, and the war stopped after 4 days. The El Salvadoran government cited violence from the Honduran immigrants after the games as the reason for the war, although many believe the games were just used as an excuse to start the war. El Salvador and Honduras still have fierce battles and are rivals, so Honduras did not want El Salvador to advance to the next round. They wanted to beat El Salvador. They wanted to have an upset.
El Salvador was perfectly content with a draw, but in the 59th minute, Jorge Alvarez of Honduras made it 1-0. Then, in the 65th minute, Honduras scored again, this time from Rubilio Castilio. El Salvador started to panic, and Bryan Acosta scored in the 75th minute, giving Honduras the 3-0 lead. In the 90th minute, Emilio Izaguirre finished the game off, with Honduras winning 4-0. Jamaica finished with five points, topping the group. Honduras finished with three points, losing the group. El Salvador and Curacao both finished with four points, but Curacao, in just their second ever CONCACAF tournament, would be advancing on goal differential.
An island nation of just 162,000, two times smaller than Iceland, stunned Jamaica and Honduras and will be advancing to the next round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they will play either USA or Panama, projected to be USA. (The game is on at 9:00 PM.) And yet, I don’t believe Curacao have reached their ceiling. I believe Curacao has a decent chance to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. For a starter, PSV goalkeeper Eloy Room has been fantastic this tournament and is just 30 years old, so he will be 33 when the tournament comes around, and 31-32 during qualifiers. The draw and near win versus Jamaica proves Curacao is finally ready to face the top contenders of North America. Van Kessel, Kooi and Bacuna are all under 30 years of age and will have matured by the start of qualifiers, and Curacao is finally becoming a bigger soccer nation. Curacao’s fans have had to follow the Netherlands’ national team for so long, but they might not have to anymore.
So when the 2022 World Cup starts, don’t be entirely surprised if you see this small country at the tournament. For now, however, Curacao must be focused on the task at hand: Winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Veel succes, Curacao!