By Dylan Butler
EAST HARTFORD, Connecticut – There was no trophy presentation when it was over, no medals to be won.
But you wouldn’t know that by the way Cuba celebrated its dramatic 4-0 win over Belize in both team’s final game of Group C in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at Rentschler Field on Tuesday.
“For me, it was like winning the World Cup,” Cuban midfielder Ariel Martinez said. “It was a great achievement for us and made very happy.”
Martinez struck for his first hat-trick to help pace the Cubans, who lost to Costa Rica and the United States in its first two group stage matches.
“The goals are for all Cubans, here and abroad,” Martinez said. “I also dedicate this to my mother because she reminds me a lot and she is definitely very happy about this.”
Jeniel Marquez Molina then scored a dramatic stoppage-time goal to clinch Cuba’s second-ever berth in the Gold Cup quarterfinals.
“When I saw the goal popping into the net, it was a burst,” Marquez Molina said. “We all were happy. We have each other to celebrate [with] because we were one.”
The Cubans needed to win by four goals to surpass Martinique as the second-ranked third place team and reach the knockout stage. They did that, in the last possible moment, to ignite a celebration of epic proportions, both on the field and in the locker room.
“We believe that this was the best game in the career of the national team,” Cuba head coach Walter Benitez said after the match. “We definitely felt very, very excited to get this result. We felt very proud of what we did tonight. The players knew that was one of the things that were going to help us. We embraced our Cuban jersey, our Cuban flag.”
Benitez said the result was quickly received back home.
“As soon as we got to the locker room, the minister of sports gave us a call,” he said. “I was talking to him. He was congratulating the whole team. We were all happy. I communicated that to the guys so everybody was so happy they were in touch as soon as we won.”
Additionally, Benitez believed Cuba’s experience in the competition was a factor in the victory over Gold Cup debutants Belize.
“I’m not saying that Belize is an inferior team,” noted the 41-year-old. “We just know that in instances like this, in this particular tournament, we have planned better tactics in games. We were able to [see] everything we planned. Everything in our games we were able to achieve.”
Cuba’s second Gold Cup victory also clinched its second trip to the quarterfinals. In 2003, the Lions of the Caribbean defeated Canada, 2-0, for its first Gold Cup win, before losing to the United States, 5-0, in the quarterfinals.
Cuba will square off against Panama, which finished atop Group A, in the quarterfinals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday. That preparation began Wednesday. Tuesday night, however, was all about celebrating a remarkable victory.
“It was a great game for us,” Benitez finished. “We put in as much effort as we needed to. It was a tremendous result. We have to recognize the tremendous effort that Beliz