Panama to make World Cup debut against strong Belgium team
MOSCOW (AP) — Panama earned its first ever World Cup berth and couldn't wait to begin its adventure on soccer's biggest stage.
Then the team drew Belgium for its opening match.
The Group G game in Sochi on Monday could be rather lopsided because Belgium, at least on paper, should be a contender for the title. The Red Devils have fallen short of expectations the last four years: Belgium lost in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup and the European Championship two years later.
Panama, meanwhile, has never beaten a European team in nine previous meetings.
The long odds have not tempered the excitement surrounding Panama's journey to Russia, and the nation has proudly supported the team's achievement in simply qualifying for the World Cup. The task Monday may be daunting, but memorable for an entire country.
"History is going to be made for the first time when we listen to our national anthem at a World Cup," Panama captain Roman Torres said. "Many people are going to cry. I think I'm going to be one of those people, too, because of the emotion and to feel the significance of listening to the national anthem at a World Cup."
Belgium goes into the match with questions about its veteran lineup because of injuries to defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany.
Vermaelen was ruled out against Panama by coach Roberto Martinez with a hamstring injury, and Kompany was expected to be a late decision because of a groin injury. He also could miss the game against Panama but return later in group play.
The match is at 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT; 1500 GMT) at Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi.
A look at Monday's other matches:
SWEDEN VS. SOUTH KOREA
3 p.m. (8 a.m. EDT; 1200 GMT)
Tension began before Sweden and South Korea even hit the field in Nizhny Novgorod.
Sweden coach Janne Andersson apologized to the South Korean team on Sunday because a member of his coaching staff attended a closed practice in Austria and was told to leave. Andersson said it was a misunderstanding and downplayed any potential harm.
But it was a distraction neither team needs in a tough Group F with defending champion Germany and Mexico.
Sweden is back at the World Cup for the first time since 2006, and its most famous player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, retired from international competition after the European Championship.
South Korea reached the semifinals at home in 2002 and the last 16 in 2010. The team didn't win at all in 2014 and angry fans threw candy at the team when it returned home.
The Korean team relies on Tottenham forward Son Heung-min and hopes for a strong performance from 6-foot-6 striker Kim Shin-wook, who is nicknamed "Chinook" after the Boeing tandem-rotor helicopter.
ENGLAND VS. TUNISIA
9 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT)
England has not won a World Cup match since 2010, which is not at all a drought compared to opponent Tunisia, which last won on this stage in 1978.
Both teams feel they can do well in Group G, which includes Panama. The weakness of the group has increased pressure on England to make it to the knockout stage, which it failed to do in 2014 against opponents Italy, Uruguay and eventual group winner Costa Rica.
Tunisia has been tested and was respectable in a 1-0 friendly loss to Spain. This is Tunisia's first World Cup match in 12 years but it is still a storied team. Tunisia in 1978 became the first team from Africa to win a match at the World Cup.
"We are in form. We know very well we are in an extremely tough group but we have raised our game, especially in terms of our athleticism," Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul said. "Everyone has seen how well we have played in the warm-ups. We are determined to go down in history."
For England, it is Gareth Southgate's first major tournament as coach but he has World Cup experience as a player, two games in 1998 and one was a 2-0 victory over Tunisia.
England is expected to win the match in Volgograd and the country does not want a winless repeat of 2014.
"Everyone at home wants England to win," Southgate said, "but they want to see them play well and enjoy their football and that's what I want as a coach."