Panama are the underdogs you should support this summer

Panama. A country fuelled on diversity following a rich history of indigenous groups and immigration over the last 500 years. The country itself was founded by Spanish and Colombians, both which still have a relevance in society today with streets named after them. Panama is of massive strategic relevance, lying between North America and South America and it is this reason as to why the US have been so intrigued and interested by the isthmus for so long. However, in 2018, you can forget the geographical nature of the country and the feat of engineering that Panama is famous for; this is about the World Cup and how Panama shocked the world.

Within the capital of Panama lies the national team’s stadium; the Estadio Rommel Fernández. A 45,000 capacity stadium placed between Llano Bonito and Campo Lindbergh, not far from the coast of the capital. A stadium in the heart of the city, where Panamanians come to support the national side. Back in October 2017, the World Cup qualifiers were set to adjourn, with Panama’s chances becoming more and more hopeful as they approached the final game. A game that would see neighbouring country and four-time World Cup entrants, Costa Rica travel into Panama having already qualified for Russia following a last-gasp draw with Honduras. An interesting scenario fell into place.

Rewinding back to the beginning of this remarkable journey to the tournament competing for the Holy Grail of football, the Panama national team reached the semi-finals of the Gold Cup in 2015 and then going on to finish runners-up the following year, coming painstakingly close to winning the tournament. Despite these stupendous results for a country like Panama, the situation regarding qualifying for Russia was an unlikely one. A group made up of Mexico, USA, Costa Rica and Honduras who most tipped to the ones contesting the qualification spots, must have been a little bit surprised that little old Panama rolled up their sleeves and mixed it amongst the big boys.

Starting the qualifying rounds 60th in the FIFA World rankings, not many would have expected to see the country in Russia come the summer. But the Panamanians did. The country itself is a proud one. A Panamanian saying proves this quite well; “puente del mundo, corazón del universo”, translating to “bridge of the world, heart of the universe.” The love the people have for the country and everything beautiful that surrounds it is remarkable. A country built on hard work and love, there is very little astonishment when you hear how honoured the Panamanians are to be Panamanian.

Gary Stempel, the current manager of the nation’s under-17 team, had a spell with the first team between 2008 and 2009. A man who worked as a community outreach officer at Millwall during the 90s and would have witnessed the casual culture first hand stated to the Independent that Panama made the East London club look like the ‘Garden of Eden’. That team, in 2009, was filled with players from broken homes and bad pasts. A certain player who went by the name of Jose Garces, nicknamed Pistolero (according to the Independent) for his love of firearms rather than the number of goals he hits. Panama, as a country and a football team, isn’t shy of crime. Earlier in 2017, a tragic event arose when Amilcar Henriquez was shot dead leaving his home, which is in an area that has been labelled a hotspot for gangs. A country that has a high amount of gangs and crime but looking at Panama, you should not let this overshadow the incredible story of their World Cup qualification.

Following falling at the final hurdle during the qualifying for Brazil 2014, the Federation looked for an inspirational figure. One who could instil belief into the team and push them, tactically and mentally, to the World Cup in Russia. The man they looked to was former Ecuador, Colombia and Guatemala boss Hernán Darío Gómez Jaramillo. Solid displays in consecutive Gold Cup campaigns give Panama, as a nation, hope. A confidence. A faith. A belief.

Improvements were noticed straight away. Panama were drawn in the fourth round group stage alongside Jamaica, Costa Rica and Haiti. A core spine of the team from Veteran goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to Gabriel Torres, who looked to take over the reigns upfront due to Luis Tejada and Blas Perez slowly bearing down on the consummation of their careers. This core, including Felipe Baloy and Gabriel Gomez, would be an influential aspect of their team, especially with qualification being the dream.  A win against Jamaica, defeat to Costa Rica and a dismal draw to Haiti may not show improvements but these were small steps. Small steps in the right direction. During the Hexagonal final phase, Panama went undefeated in 2016 but, following the turn of the year, they went six fixtures without a win. Hope and belief slowly started to be sucked out of the nation. World Cup qualification seemed to be slowly slipping from their grasp.

Heading into their final game against Costa Rica. A Costa Rica team which had superstar goalkeeper Keylor Navas in and once Arsenal prospect, Joel Campbell. For Panama, morale was low. A win would only suffice. The game was at 1-1 with the clock ticking on. Honduras were set for automatic qualification and the US, shockingly losing to Trinidad & Tobago, were set for playoffs after a largely disappointing qualification process.

Cue the most incredible moment of Panama’s history, not only as a football team but as a nation. A ball, flicked on over the Costa Rican defence, with Roman Torres galloping beyond them. The ball sat up nicely, and Torres sent Panama to the World Cup with a big swing of his right foot. Pandemonium. The whole nation joyous. The situation was remarkable. Here was Panama, a country with a population of around four million people, triumphant over Costa Rica and advancing to the World Cup ahead of the most influential country in the world, the United States of America. This was something that does not happen regularly in the World Cup or national football in general. Think Iceland x the European Championships 2016, think David vs Goliath, think…PANAMA.

Roman Torres, the defender for Seattle Sounders, bounded forward from the back to send home the winner. Before this goal, he was waiting for the call. The call to send him up field to chase that winning goal. He said when returning from duty to the Sounders, that “the moment didn’t come, so I just went.” Pure devotion to the cause. Pure desperation to make it to the grandest stage of them all. And boy, didn’t it just pay off? The country’s national newspaper, La Pensa, labelled it ‘The Miracle of Roman’. This guy became a national hero. But Torres stuck to his Panamanian values, he stated; we never lost faith or gave up.” And it’s those words that define the national side of Panama. Those words full explain that they never lost hope, despite going into the game looking very unlikely to qualify.

The story is fascinating but what can we actually expect from the nation at the tournament? Drawn against England and Belgium, two of the biggest teams in the tournament, but the team will travel to Russia full of tribalism and pride and look to shock a few. Okay, maybe we won’t see an upset with Panama finished top or second in the group but I can guarantee we will see them get down and dirty, wrestling against bigger men in England and Belgium and they will ensure they enjoy themselves when doing so.

This result was a magnificent feat for the country. Going into the world’s biggest tournament, the nation will be fuelled by islander pride and passion, fuelled by togetherness and fuelled by hope. When a nation qualifies for a World Cup and makes the day a national holiday, you instantly know they love this game and it unites the country. One world, one game. And I mean that.

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