2018 FIFA World Cup: It's a long way to the top for Panama
How Panama football has grown over the last few years, and subsequently qualified for their first World Cup
A controversial beginning
A lot has been written about the Iceland national team and their incredible qualification for the 2018 FIFA World cup, whereas not as much emphasis has been given to the result the Panama side achieved, who for the first time in history, will take part in the final stages of a World cup.
The team got its ticket to Russia thanks to their 2-1 win on the final matchday of the CONCACAF group stages against Costa Rica, and also, USA's stunning defeat at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago by the same score.
However, Panama’s win has kickstarted several debates and complaints, as on the occasion of the short-lived draw, the goal scored by Blas Perez after a corner should not have been allowed, as the ball did not cross the goal line.
The national team’s captain has declared, in an exclusive to us, that
“In that moment, all I was thinking of was scoring; afterwards, we saw the referee validating the goal and, from that moment onwards, we only focused on gaining time to score another goal”.
The former Vancouver Whitecaps striker, currently playing in the Guatemalan team Municipal, added:
”This qualification means a lot for us and the whole nation: In 2013 we lost this opportunity during the last minutes of the last match day, this year we did not want this to happen”.
Gary Stempel: The man who started a revolution
When they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Julio Cesar Dely Valdes was appointed as the national coach, and he came in to replace Gary Stempel, the British head coach who orchestrated a proper revolution in Panama's football setting.
In some ways, Gary Stempel became a pioneer, since, at the end of the 90s, when he took over the team after his experience with Millwall, football in Panama was basically ignored by the government, even if widely practised by kids, instead of baseball.
The first so-called professional national team used to train in gravel pitches with good old holes in the ground. Stempel himself used to pay for the training equipment such as footballs and bibs, to allow his players, that were not paid, to train, with or without shoes.
In 2003, Stempel led his sub-20 national team through the World Cup qualification, all the way to the World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. This success sparked the attention of the local government, as well as of private investors, who subsequently took over the construction of infrastructure, and provided salaries for the players.
In 2009, the senior national team of Panama managed to win the Centro-American Cup, and to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Gold Cup, but they lost against USA in extra time.
The more recent development of the Panama national team, with the Colombian headcoach Hernan Dario Gomez, (also known as Bolillo), has mainly been triggered by the hiring of major Panama talents in the MLS, which allowed them to compete at higher standards, in order to work better on their personal skills, together with expert coaches and world-class teammates.
Blas Perez himself has played over the past years in Dallas and Vancouver sides in the MLS:
”The experience that several of our players have built up by travelling in other championships helped us to improve: mainly, our presence abroad opened up to the arrival of other Panamanians in important domestic leagues”.
Although, after the 4-0 defeat against USA, in the penultimate match of the qualification stage, seemingly, Panama did not give up any hope for the World Cup qualifications. The goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who also experienced the Italian Serie A at Cagliari side for a year, told us, exclusively:
”We never lost hope, none of us has given up; we had already found ourselves in similar circumstances: our defeat was hard to digest, but we had to work on, without thinking about it. We knew that, if had we won against Costa Rica, we still would have had chances to qualify: we took on the odds, the US did not”.
A glimmer of hope?
The president of the Republic of Panama declared a National holiday in order to celebrate the stunning qualification of a team that managed to achieve, thanks to a continuous growth, the 49th position in the FIFA international ranking.
Panama players are not limiting themselves in Russia:
“We’ll take whatever comes - says Penedo, - we have to be able to keep the same momentum we have had over the qualifiers. We still have to talk to the coach to clarify our objectives, but personally, I would like our people to be proud of us”.
“We want to live this experience to the fullest -adds Blas Perez, - it’s our first time, we’ll do our best”.