Julio de Leon cut a somewhat sombre figure at the final whistle of Honduras' 1-0 win in El Salvador, first swapping shirts with an opposing player and embracing a couple of team-mates before wandering slowly back to the dressing room. Despite the three points, 'Rambo' knew that Los Catrachos were set to miss out on a direct ticket to the FIFA World Cup™ finals, given that Costa Rica were 2-1 ahead in the United States.
Suddenly, a deafening roar erupted from the 3,000-strong blue-and-white bedecked visiting contingent, stopping De Leon in his tracks. Knowing instinctively what must have happened, the Torino midfielder simply dropped to the turf and let the emotion of the moment wash over him.
We were dejected, then we suddenly saw the fans celebrating in the stands. We wondered what was going on, then we found out that the North Americans had equalised. We just started running around and celebrating as we deserved to go to the World Cup.
It had been a nerve-jangling evening for Honduran followers, with the half-time news anything but encouraging in the two games that would decide their national team's fate. Over in the USA, Costa Rica had stormed into a surprising but deserved two-goal lead against the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup finalists, both efforts coming from Brian Ruiz. Los Catrachos, meanwhile, were working hard without being able to break down their gritty Salvadoran hosts.
Yet the panorama could not have been more different once the whistle blew first in San Salvador and then in Washington DC. With a solitary strike from veteran forward Carlos Pavon, the man whose profligacy arguably cost all three points against the USA at the weekend, clinching a vital Honduran success, all ears then turned to the American capital where *Los Ticos *had automatic qualification in their grasp. That was until defender Jonathan Bornstein rose highest to head the Stars and Stripes level in the fourth minute of injury time.
"This is unforgettable, we're so happy, we can't find the words to describe how we feel. It was tough going but Honduras deserve it," said Pavon afterwards. "We were dejected, then we suddenly saw the fans celebrating in the stands. We wondered what was going on, then we found out that the North Americans had equalised. We just started running around and celebrating as we deserved to go to the World Cup."
For the people
Meanwhile, Catracho supremo Reinaldo Rueda had been ejected from the bench during the encounter, and was thus forced to witness the culmination of over two years of hard work from the dressing room.
"I went into the dressing room, got down on my knees and prayed for a miracle in the United States," said the Colombian-born strategist. "Even when it happened I didn't believe it. This is to make the people happy. It's the best reward for all the warmth that the Honduran people have shown to me and the national team."
In euphoric scenes at the Estadio Cuscatlan, travelling supporters embraced each other and cried tears of joy and relief, while joining in chants of "We're going to the World Cup!" with the Honduran players. Those same words were at that moment echoing around the whole of Honduras, with millions of people from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula taking to the streets to celebrate reaching South Africa 2010.
I went into the dressing room, got down on my knees and prayed for a miracle in the United States.
Turning back to the Cuscatlan and there was David Suazo, doing a lap of honour on his knees - thus fulfilling a pre-match vow - while captain Amado Guevara hugged his close friend Pavon and said, "We've done it my brother, we've done it."
The celebrations continued into Thursday, with the government declaring a national holiday in honour of returning to world football's top table for the first time since Spain 1982. And with a parade along the streets of the capital expected once the players return from El Salvador, the Catracho party may just be getting started.