Colombia and Peru saved the drama for right until the death at MetLife Stadium on Friday as the feeling continued to grow that the Copa America Centenario has firmly arrived in the United States.
This is, it must be said, the most attended edition of the tournament in its 100-year history, but with the home side in the semifinal, and Colombia now joining thanks to a penalty shootout victory, the sense that a major event is taking place on U.S. soil will start to take hold more than ever.
There have been big crowds from the start, but even the U.S.’s quarterfinal victory over Ecuador on Thursday was not a sellout in soccer mad Seattle. This meeting between Colombia and Peru, however, was a true spectacle, even if the game itself failed to live up to the fantastic following in the stands.
The carnival atmosphere outside the MetLife Stadium was in full swing ahead of the match. One of the most impressive bi-products of this very South American tournament being held at very North American sporting stadia is the unique pre-game celebrations, and this was one of the best yet.
The traditional U.S. tailgate parties have taken on a very Latino feel this month, with music from the clubs of Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and anywhere else you can think of blaring out of pickup trucks, while the choicest cuts of meat, another South American speciality, cook on makeshift barbecues and fans from rival clubs try to pass a football to each other despite the several cans of domestic lager they have consumed.
The sights and smells have been something to behold, and none more so than on Friday night in New Jersey, where tens of thousands of fans, the majority of which Colombian, danced and drank, transforming the normally bereft car park into something approaching a Bogota nightclub. And unlike what we have witnessed in France this last week, there was not a hint of trouble.
That atmosphere, which actually started at Secaucus Junction when fans heartily cheered the arrival of a special train service that takes them to the MetLife, carried on inside this huge arena. 79,194 people - essentially a sell-out at this NFL cathedral - piled through the gates to see their teams fight for a place in the semifinals.
More often than not it was a fight. Colombia has blown hot and cold at this tournament but at its best the side has shown flashes of a team capable of going all the way. Here, though, the team was stifled by the defensive spirit that earned Peru top spot in Group B, one which eliminated Brazil.
But without the aid of a hand this time, Ricardo Gareca’s men could not breach the Colombia goal on the counterattack. You got the sense the team was playing for penalties from the outset.
In each of the three group games Colombia struck within 12 minutes, but there was little sign of any breakthrough, let alone an early one, during this quarterfinal clash. James Rodriguez did hit the post in the first half, but there were few opportunities for the well-backed favorite.
For the Colombians who represented the majority of this massive crowd, their enthusiasm was not quite matched by the quality on the pitch. Even the music at halftime was Colombian – much to the annoyance of some of the Peruvian contingent – but Gareca’s side set out to defy the odds and they came so close to spoiling the party.
In fact, Christian Ramos nearly won it with a stoppage-time header, which man of the match David Ospina did well to turn over the bar. So to penalties it went. A fitting finale for this fiesta.
Colombia successfully converted its first three penalties, Peru its first two, but when Miguel Trauco’s effort was saved by the legs of Ospina things started to go against the underdogs for the firt time. Sebastian Perez guided home los Cafeteros’ fourth, meaning it all came down to Christian Cueva. But the Peruvian No.10, who played such an effective role closer to his own goal than his rivals’, skied his effort.
Then the real party started. On a night where thwarted Peru counterattacks were cheered heartily by the Colombians, a penalty shootout victory, the most dramatic this sport can offer, was always going to be something special.
So it proved as the swathes of passionate supporters erupted with joy. They will enjoy tonight and wake up tomorrow morning able to plan for a semifinal at Soldier Field in Chicago. With either Chile or Mexico providing the opposition, we are in for another fantastic night.
With the US facing off against either Argentina or the defiant Venezuelans in Houston on Tuesday, the remainder of this Copa is going to be a real show-stopper. This was just a taste of things to come.