Every athlete knows the routine. First, the sensation of pins and needles, and then the pain of a muscle clenching tight, leaving no doubt about the diagnosis – cramp. For most, there is no other option than to stop running, but what to do if you are bearing down on goal in the 86th minute with the scoreline 2-2? Sometimes a simple cramp can deny a sportsman his place in history, as the unfortunate Carlos Small discovered in Wellington on Saturday.
"To begin with, I just wanted to dribble the goalkeeper, but I felt a twinge in my calf," explained the Panama forward. "Because of that, I decided to try something more straightforward." For such a powerful and athletic player, the challenge of keeping the ball from onrushing Argentina goalkeeper Augusto Batalla looked eminently feasible.
Having pounced on lapse positioning in Argentina's defence, the youngster had picked up the ball close to the halfway line and was on his way. With all the time in the world to make the correct decision, ultimately he was forced to shoot – and fired wide.
Panama had started the match eager to end their long run of 12 games without victory at a FIFA U-20 World Cup. Had Small not suffered from cramp at the crucial moment, they could have stopped that sequence in their opening match, and against one of the tournament favourites. Instead, the two teams had to settle for a 2-2 stalemate.
We're like a family. Everyone is prepared to fight for his team-mates.
"We were expecting a very tough game and that's why I'm still satisfied with the result," added the Sporting San Miguelito striker. In truth, Panama could have come away with nothing at all. Before kick-off, a fierce gale started to buffet the stadium in aptly nicknamed 'Windy Wellington', and while the conditions seemed to suit Argentina's Angel Correa, they left the Panamanians floundering.
Twice Correa put La Albiceleste in front, but Los Canaleros were able to dig deep and muster a quick equaliser on both occasions. Small believes the result speaks volumes for the spirit of solidarity in their squad. "We're like a family," said the player dubbed Caliche by his colleagues. "Everyone is prepared to fight for his team-mates."
A little intimidated to begin with, the team coached by Argentinian tactician Leonardo Pipino only really came into their own after Jhamal Rodriguez's superb strike, his wonderful leveller from 25 metres going down as an early candidate for goal of the tournament. "That goal was so important for us," said Small, who – at 6'0 tall – is anything but. "It gave us our confidence back and allowed us to relax a little. I went straight over to Jhamal to celebrate his unbelievable goal with him."
Correa's second strike for Argentina 11 minutes from time then left the Panama fans stunned in silence. Briefly, the only songs to be heard were coming from the Argentina supporters, but Pipino's charges soon showed yet again why no one ought to take them for granted. Less than five minutes after falling behind, they had Batalla fishing the ball out of his net for a second time.
Small played his part in the lead-up to that goal, Fidel Escobar burying what could prove a crucial strike, and then came his opportunity to seal a famous comeback. No sooner had it come, though, than it was gone. Robbed of his chance by cramp, Small could only cover his face with his hands. "My team-mates came over to console me," recalled the No18, a fan of Robin van Persie. "That's football. Now we have to focus on the game against Austria."
And with that, he made his way to Panama's team bus, anxious for a different outcome next time around.