World Cup Preview: Panama, “like a dream, fantasy”

World Cup Preview: Panama, “like a dream, fantasy”

Panama, a country predominantly known for baseball and boxing will experience for the first time the biggest showpiece in football, the FIFA World Cup.

Ranked 55 in the latest FIFA ranking released on May 17, nicknamed Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) or La Marea Roja (The Red Tide). Panama have attempted the World Cup since 1978 and failed.

They will finally be making their debut in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia after a dramatic 2-1 win over Costa Rica on the final Matchday of CONCACAF qualifying for Russia 2018. La Marea Roja will be facing European powerhouses Belgium and England. North Africans Tunisia complete Group G.

The coach

Hernan Dario Gomez: The 62 year old is a former Colombian football player who has been in charge of Panama since 2014. He’s had World Cup journeys with Colombia and Ecuador.

On October 10, 2017, he led Panama to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

His quote

“World Cup seemed like a dream, like a fantasy, but I never lost hope.”

How they qualified?

The Central Americans finished third in CONCACAF’s Hex to reach their first World Cup. Captain of the side, Roman Torres scored a vital late winner against Costa Rica at home in the last qualfying game while Trinidad and Tobago beat USA to confirm Panama’s qualification.

Panama started their campaign in Round 4 of the regional qualifiers in Group B with Costa Rica, Haiti and Jamaica. They finished second behind Costa Rica on 10 points. In the Hexagonal final phase, they started with a vital away win over Honduras. But had a winless run of six games without a victory, picking up four draws. In the final two months of the qualifiers, Panama confirmed their ticket to Russia thanks to a draw with Honduras combined with home wins over Trinidad & Tobago and Costa Rica.

The Central Americans needed to beat Costa Rica hoping Trinidad and Tobago do same to USA in Couva same time and it turned out that way. Torres scored a late winner two minutes from time to make history for the Central American side. Just days after being beaten 4-0 and leapfrogged by USA in the CONCACAF Zone standings, Panama reached their first-ever FIFA World Cup.

Star players

Gabriel Torres: The captain scored a late winner versus Costa Rica last October to earn Panama’s World Cup qualification. Torres has bravely and effectively stepped forward and looks to be a natural replacement for the aging Luis Tejada and Blas Perez.

Luis Tejada: Tejada is currently the all-time leading scorer in Panama history with 43 goals.

Jaime Penedo: The 35-year-old goalkeeper showed his experience when it mattered most.

Felipe Baloy: A versatile defender who can make his presence felt up front but rarely leaves spaces at the back. He is also a fine header of the ball.

Gabriel Gomez: Most capped player, 141, a midfield orchestrator who can put his foot on the ball and find precious time. He is also a tireless worker with a gift for winning back possession, and frequently sets attacks in motion with his excellent vision.

Blas Perez – a veteran of well over 100 international appearances will bring vital experience to Panama at the World Cup.

The stat

**13 – Panama will be the 13th different side from the CONCACAF Zone to participate at the World Cup. Mexico lead the way in the region with 16 appearances on the global stage.

**With an average age of 29.4, Panama were the oldest team in qualifying.

Expectation.

Their success has been built on the collective efforts of a group of players who believed in their dream and fought tooth and nail to realise it. I expect them to play as a unit in Russia but might not be enough to qualify them to the second round. All the same, it will be an experience worthwhile for the debutants.

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