Haiti’s Kervens Belfort nudged a wide-open header six yards from goal past the near post in the 94th minute, the substitute forward breaking down in tears at the final whistle.
Stacked top to bottom from most compelling matchup to least, Peru’s 1-0 win over Haiti on Saturday at CenturyLink Field might occupy the lowest rung of all of Copa America Centenario.
When local fans ponied up to buy three-game tournament ticket packages, few were hoping to tell their grandkids about the time they saw Romain Genevois and Renato Tapia play live.
There were large chunks of empty seats at CenturyLink on a blue-sky Saturday afternoon, an official attendance of 20,190 limited in part by face-value ticket prices that started at $50 a pop.
Yet stripped of pre-Copa hype and with little pregame expectation, there remained what makes these major international soccer tournaments so fun in the first place.
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Pioneer Square was filled with Peruvians wearing their country’s distinctive uniforms, white with a red sash. They were the predominant fan group in the stadium, as well, chants of “Pear-Ooo” breaking out every time their team pushed forward.
There were flags waved and draped over shoulders, painted faces and the giddiness of seeing your national team in person so far from home.
“Wherever we go, they’re there,” Peru coach Ricardo Gareca said. “They always find us and we always feel that love and support. … I know that people came from different parts of the United States to see us, and the satisfaction that we were able to give them, the happiness of the win, we hope to continue to give them this.”
It isn’t often that the Haitian national team gets to play on so elevated an international stage, and Peru is seldom so heavy a favorite.
Sounders forward Nelson Valdez explained that the allure of this tournament to his native Paraguayans is that they can somewhat reasonably dream of a title, unlike at the deeper and more top-heavy World Cup. Paraguay has actually won Copa America, as has Peru — twice.
This is an event for optimistic outsiders, and in this field, both of these teams certainly qualify.
Grouped with powerhouse Brazil and dark-horse Ecuador, Haiti and Peru knew it likely needed to win on Saturday in order to advance. Unlike the Costa Rica-Paraguay match earlier in the day — a dour draw between teams who knew their most important matchups lie ahead — Haiti-Peru was messy, hard-fought and entertaining.
There were open looks, give-and-gos and heated exchanges after the whistle, Peruvian elation and Haitian heartbreak. Peru, ranked 46th in the FIFA rankings and 25 spots higher than its opponent, was clearly the more talented team.
It pushed Haiti back into its own half from the opening kickoff, and for the first 10 minutes, Les Grenadiers barely even managed so much as a touch on the other side of midfield.
Yet Haiti, in the same stubborn manner with which it qualified for the tournament in the first place, dug in its heels and made a game of it.
“We’re not going to start with our tails between our legs thinking we’re not going to win,” said Haitian coach Patrice Neveu.
Peru forward Paolo Guerrero finally broke the deadlock in the 61st minute, finishing off Edison Flores’ bending cross with a diving header. Haiti, though, continued to push and nearly answered the final seconds.
Kervens Belfort nudged a wide-open header six yards from goal past the near post in the 94th minute, the substitute forward breaking down in tears at the final whistle.