Costa Rica will be heading into this summer's ninth CONCACAF Gold Cup as champions of Central America after beating Panama in a penalty shoot-out in the final of the 2007 Copa de Naciones in El Salvador on Sunday. The six-time UNCAF champions will be joined in the regional showpiece in the USA this June by fellow Central American hopefuls Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The ever-lively Luis Tejada of Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake opened the scoring in Panama's second meeting with Costa Rica in the 37th minute of Sunday's final. And just three minutes away from a first-ever Central American title, Kurt Bernard broke Panamanian hearts to draw level in the 87th minute.
With the match going directly to penalties, Costa Rica went on to record a record sixth UNCAF crown and their second on the trot by way of a shoot-out (4-1). The impressive, red-clad Panamanians, for their part, will not be hoping for another bout of penalties any time soon as they also missed out on their chance to become champions of CONCACAF in 2005 after losing out on spot kicks to the USA in the Gold Cup Final.
The ten-day, seven-team Central American championship at the Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador threw up a host of intriguing clashes and high-octane, forward-thinking football. UNCAF giants Costa Rica, three-time FIFA World Cup finalists, progressed predictably to the semi-finals after finishing in second-place behind Panama in a decidedly tricky three-team Group B. A 1-0 loss to the seemingly ever-improving Panamanians was not enough to eliminate Hernan Medford's men. In their first match, a Rolando Fonseca brace led the Ticos past Honduras 3-1 for a place in the last four and a guaranteed spot at the Gold Cup.
In their semi-final win over hosts El Salvador, Fonseca netted again and Harold Wallace got on the scoresheet as well to earn a 2-0 victory and book their passage to Sunday's final.
Panama - surprise CONCACAF Gold Cup finalists back in 2005 and a team very much on the up in the region - made their way to the final in similarly impressive fashion. A 1-1 draw with Honduras and a 1-0 win over Costa Rica were enough to see the previously unfashionable Canaleros, led by former Costa Rican international and head coach Alexandre Guimaraes , into the Gold Cup and the all-important semi-final round.
Guatemala go through
They went on to make easy pickings of Group A runners-up Guatemala in an edgy contest. Felipe Baloy and Ricardo Phillips - both veterans of the side that swooped to reach the final of the last instalment of the CONCACAF Gold Cup - both netted to push the Panamanians into the final.
As losing semi-finalists, Guatemala, sadly without the services of star striker Carlos 'El Pescadito' Ruiz, and El Salvador both qualified for this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup in the USA. They will be joined by Honduras - the final qualifier for the regional showpiece and the first Central American team to reach a Gold Cup final back in 1991 - who annihilated Nicaragua 9-1 in a specially-arranged fifth-place match. Wilmer Velasquez scored no less than four goals, Saul Martinez grabbed three for himself and Jairo Martinez and Carlos Mejia each notched one in the lopsided victory.
The five Central American qualifiers round out the 12-team field for the Gold Cup which will be played in six venues across the USA from 6-24 June. They will join up with Caribbean champions Haiti , new boys Guadeloupe, Cuba, Trinidad & Tobago and three former champions in the USA, Mexico and Canada.
No team from the Caribbean or Central America has ever been crowned champion of North, Central America and the Caribbean since the Gold Cup's inception in 1991.