Newcastle, England – As Roger Espinoza started to walk off the field in the 90th minute at the St. James' Park, the crowd rose up in unison and cheered for the Honduran. Even the Brazilians and coach Mano Menezes applauded the midfielder's epic effort in the game of his life.
What was unusual about Espinoza's departure from Honduras' 3-2 defeat to Brazil in the Olympic men's quarterfinal on Saturday was that he had just been red-carded in the 90th minute. But the 42,166 spectators who filled up the stadium appreciated a scintillating performance and effort when they saw one.
Espinoza just played his heart out in an end-to-end display. He helped set up the Hondurans' first goal and scored the second while being the heart and soul of a relentless Honduran side that was forced to play 57 minutes a man down due to an earlier red card.
Espinoza admitted he was surprised by the crowd's reaction, but Honduras coach Luis Suarez certainly wasn't.
"People were disappointed to see him leave the field, but I was not surprised to see the ovation from the crowd because they clearly recognize quality from him," he said.
But for the fans who are familiar with the Sporting Kansas City midfielder's play, this kind of all-around performance isn't new to them.
"We are used to seeing him play in such a way," Suarez said. "He's a such an excellent player. He wears his heart on his sleeve. Today it was another show of his quality playing against tough opposition in the Olympics."
Espinoza credited the crowd with pushing him to the limit. "In England, people clap for every good play you make," he said. "It actually inspires you knowing that people are right behind you."
It was a bittersweet match and ending to the Olympics for Espinoza and his teammates. They took on what essentially what will be the Brazilian National Team for the 2014 World Cup and gave it a scare and made them sweat, with some blood, sweat and tears of their own.
"It's a very tough game, but you have to move on right away," he said. "It was tough. I couldn't believe it. I thought we had the team to win the game. Brazil had a lot of respect for us. You could see it in the game. We were going after them."
Espinoza knew this would be the game of a lifetime, calling it the biggest and best game he has played in – bigger than the 1-0 group-stage upset of Spain last week.
He was a dynamo and seemed to be wherever the ball was, whether Los Catrachos were on attack or defending. He set up the first goal and scored the second one.
"In a game of this caliber and to beat Brazil you have to bring everything," he said. "It wasn't enough for us. I feel with 10 men it was a lot tougher. The entire tournament I prepared myself to play well, especially last night. I made sure I was prepared. I ate well and slept well for one of the toughest games in my career and it ended up working out pretty well."
Just not as well as Espinoza and his teammates wanted.
Twice the Central Americans grabbed the lead and twice the Brazilians came back to tie and eventually produce the win.
Espinoza did some nice work on the first goal in the 12th minute, intercepting a pass in the attacking zone, bringing the ball into the corner, beating a Brazilian defender before sending the ball to Maynor Figueroa at the top of the penalty area. Figueroa quickly fed Mario Martinez, who looped a shot over goalkeeper Gabriel into the far right corner.
Then came defender Wilmer Crisanto's red card in the 32nd minute because only 43 seconds prior he had been booked with a yellow card (those turned out to be among the nine yellows and two red that referee Felix Brych of Germany handed out).
"The red card, that took us out," Espinoza said. "I wouldn't say we would have won the game. You never know what would have happened. But I felt with 11 men something would have happened."
The Brazilians equalized on the first of two Leandro Damiao goals, but Honduras retook the lead in the 48th minute on Espinoza's goal. He fired a low shot from the right side of the penalty area into the lower left corner of the net for a rather unlikely 2-1 advantage.
But with an extra man, the Brazilians were close to unstoppable at times, although Los Catrachos tried their best. Neymar equalized on a penalty kick in the 51st minute before Leandro Damiao connected for the game-winner nine minutes later.
The experience these new generation of Honduran received was immeasurable.
"This is the best generation of guys for a Honduras team, just because how well they are well together, dinners, how they like each a lot," Espinoza said. "This generation will have a lot to give to Honduras. I know the experience for them here. When I went to the World Cup [in 2010] the experience, I grew up so much in soccer. Here, I know these guys will grow up."
Who knows? Espinoza's Olympic experience could wind up being a tryout for a career in the English Premier League. He demonstrated he had the toughness to play there.
He admitted he has ambitions to play in England.
"That's the plan, obviously," he said. "I want to play in a top league and the English Premier League is one of my favorite leagues. If the chance arises, I wouldn't hesitate to be here. I love the league. I watch it every morning in the USA."
It certainly doesn't hurt that some of Espinoza's international teammates perform over here -- Figueroa with Wigan and Wilson Palacios with Stoke City.
Asked if he would actively seek a move to England, Espinoza replied, "I wouldn't have any problems with coming here. My contract is almost up, but I have to talk to my team, Kansas City. They are the ones who have the first option since I've been there for my whole career and they've taken care of me."
Long after the team bus left for the hotel, Espinoza was the last Honduran player out of the stadium. Not that he was moping in the locker room about the loss or red card, but because he was delayed a good hour due to a drug test. He was selected to undergo a urine test. Given the effort he put out, it wasn't surprising that Espinoza did not have any fluids in his body.
"It took forever man," he said. "I lost all my energy in the game. I was dehydrated and I was pissed off. Nothing would come out."
When he did come out of doping control, Espinoza was wearing not his Honduran colors, but the shirt of Brazilian defender Romulo.
He might not come home with a medal, but he did have a unique prize.
"Can't complain," he said with a smile. "I got a Brazilian shirt."
Espinoza and the Hondurans almost got more than shirts. They almost got the Brazilians' scalps in one the most memorable night of their careers.
Michael Lewis, who has covered eight World Cups and has been reporting about soccer for four decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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