Newcomers Panama enter the big stage in Russia

Panama World Cup

By Jaimer Dela Cruz

The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will witness a lot of firsts for several nations like Egypt, Iceland and Peru. But another nation who will have another first is Panama. A nation in the third most successful confederation in the world CONCACAF.

Reaching the group stages of the 2018 World Cup will mean a lot to Los Canaleros considering the agony they had to endure last time out when they failed to qualify for the 2014 edition of the said tournament. They fell in the hands of United States who missed out this year’s tournament.

The Last Minute Heartbreak

In a country where basketball, baseball and boxing get more attention than football, Panama saw a glimmer of hope of qualifying for the very first time in the tournament back in 2014. The long road to Brazil started a year after the tournament culminated in Johannesburg. Panama came in on the third second round of qualification where they finished at the top of group C with full 12 points as they won all their games.

Come the third round of the qualifiers, they were grouped with eventual group winners Honduras in group C as well. It was close between the two as they finished on equal points, only being separated by goal-difference as Honduras finished with +9 while Los Canaleros finished only with +4. But in finishing second in the group, they were able to proceed to the final phase.

On the fourth round of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers, they faced United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Jamaica. Panama kicked off their fourth round campaign with a draw with Costa Rica as they matched the two goals scored to them by Los Ticos. They got the same result when they travelled to Kingston as they settled with another stalemate with Jamaica this to matching a goal that was scored by the Reggae Boyz.

Things went from ambitious to almost reality as they won 2-0 over Honduras to the delight of their home fans. They then managed to hold Mexico at bay as they held one of the regions powerhouse to a nil-nil draw. Their reality check came on the fourth game of the fourth round as they faced 1994 hosts United States. They lost two-nil away from home as Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson found the back of the net during their encounter.

They would then draw their next two games with Jamaica nil-nil and the with Honduras two-two. They were then shown the exit door in Estadio Azteca as they were dealt with a 2-1 defeat against Mexico. With the hope of the nation lying on their shoulders, Los Canaleros stood up against the United States at home inside the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

Knowing that a win by four goals or more is already an impossible feat but they came into the game with a lot of positivity in mind. After just 18 minutes into the match, Gabriel Torres put the hosts ahead he shot first-time past Brad Guzan to put them on the driver’s seat. They finished the first half ahead of the Americans but they didn’t go down without a fight.

Into the second half of the match, the Americans piled on a lot of chances presented to them by Panama but they’re always being met by either a solid defense or the brilliance of the keeper Jaime Penedo but they would concede a goal from the corner as Michael Orozco tapped it in. Los Canaleros didn’t want to disappoint their home fans as they pushed for the lead towards the end of the match.

On the 83rd minute, a cross from Robert Chen was deflected by Guzan only to find flailing to the path of Luis Tejada who tapped the ball in to put them back in the lead and send everyone inside the stadium in ecstasy. Their celebration were short-lived though as Brad Davis fed the ball inside the box to Graham Zusi who headed the ball in for an equalizer.

Their elimination was then sealed on the final minute of the match as Aron Johannson slots in the dagger on the 93rd minute which stunned and silenced the entire stadium. Johannson’s shot was slotted at the bottom left corner of the goal where Penedo had no chance of saving it.

A Debut to Remember

After the disappointment in 2014, Panama came out blazing on the fourth round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers as they finished second in Group B with 10 points but that just seemed to be a prelude to another roller-coaster ride for the 55th rank Panama.

They opened their fifth round qualifiers with a draw with Mexico before a one-nil defeat against Trinidad and Tobago. They’d then draw their next three games with the United States 1-1, Costa Rica on a goal-less draw and a 2-2 result with Honduras.

Moments of uncertainty as they were dealt with a 1-nil defeat by Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. They then bounced back as home as they trounced Trinidad and Tobago three goals to nil. The exit door was almost shown to them as they were bullied by the Americans four goals to nil in Orlando.

It all went down on their final game at home against Los Ticos. Wanting to erase the memories of their 3-2 defeat last time out at the hands of United States, Panama only wished for a win to secure their third place finish in the qualifiers to secure an automatic qualification spot to Russia.

They started off the game on the wrong foot as they conceded a goal on the 37th minute of the match. Not wanting to back down, they grabbed one back eight minutes into the second half as Blas Perez scored his version of a ghost goal. As Anibal Godoy delivered the ball from a corner, a scramble inside the box saw Perez going down at the goalmouth Ronald Matarrita was defending inside the goal. He tried to clear the ball out but it hit Perez which eventually crossed the goal-line but was seen bouncing out of the net. Replays show that the ball clearly went in before making its way out through the side netting.

Two minutes before the end of the match, team captain Roman Torres delivered a sensational goal that put them ahead and sent the crowd into a frenzy. Luis Tejada headed the ball through past the Costa Rican defense which Torres chased before slotting a half-volleyed shot past Patrick Pemberton.

All they needed was their captain to step up and steer them towards victory and yes he did. After the final whistle has blown, a mad frenzy ringed around the stadium indicating Panam has arrived at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle.