In the protracted campaign for World Cup qualification, a little luck can go a long way.
Panama are one of only two teams that will make their debuts in the finals this year – the other is Iceland – but unlike the men from the very margin of Europe, virtually nothing is known about the Central Americans.
Which is partly because they haven’t done a great deal in the past century.
But they did knock out the Americans to get to Russia, albeit not without a touch of controversy and good fortune.
Approaching the final day of the Central American and Caribbean campaign in November last year, Panama were in a three-way tie for the third and final qualifying spot from the section.
They needed to win but victory for the United States against already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago would mean the States would go through. As Trinidad were the group’s whipping boys, it was a given that Panama would, at best, be looking to a play-off spot. Defeat to bitter rivals Costa Rica, who with Mexico were already on their way to Russia, and a big win for Honduras over Mexico would deprive them of even that.
Panama’s 2-1 home victory over Costa Rica that secured their qualification owed a lot to a non-goal. There’s not even any debate about this, TV replays clearly show the ball trundled towards the post, came back off onto the hand of the prostate Blaz Perez and was cleared. It’s not even near the net but the referee saw otherwise, and the home side was back on level terms.
These things, of course, never even themselves out, and with two minutes to go, Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres struck to give the Panamanians a dramatic the win. Meanwhile, in the Trinidad city of Couva, the Americans somehow contrived to go down by the same score to the weakest link in the group and crashed out spectacularly, pipped even to the play-off spot by Honduras after their 3-2 win over Mexico.
So, Panama, famous for its canal, banana production and its naming of a dandy hat (though they’re made in Ecuador) now has some fame for its football prowess. Not bad for a country that, hitherto, only made an impact in sport on the baseball field and in the boxing ring – Roberto Duran is a national hero, but there’s also been a host of fighters holding one of the numerous versions of a world title.
Now they could pose the latest embarrassment to England when the teams meet on June 25th in Nizhny Novgorod. The Panamanians will already have faced Belgium by this point, and England will have taken on Tunisia.
If they are to avoid an early exit, Torres will be one who could make it happen. Since making his debut in 2005, he has formed an integral part of the Gold Cup and World Cup qualification campaigns. The 31-year-old sometimes captain can also lead at the front and scored a crucial last-minute equaliser at home to Honduras in June in a 2-2 draw, that, given Panama pipped Honduras to the final automatic qualification spot on goal difference, is a retrospective pivotal goal.
Teenage striker Ismael Diaz was on the books at Porto, along with Gabriel Torres, but the pair now play their football at Deportivo La Coruna and Lausanne respectively.
Veteran goalkeeper Jaime Penedo’s experience is vital to the squad while midfielder Armando Cooper and Fidel Escobar are influential in midfield and defence respectively.
The long and winding road to Russia
Panama’s sole international success was at the 1951 CCCF Championship, the then Caribbean and Central American tournament, on its own soil.
However, it was a weakened field after most member countries pulled out because of a polio epidemic. Panama kicked off with a 2-0 win over Costa Rica – this was effectively their neighbour’s B-team – following it up with a 4-0 rout of Nicaragua and a 1-1 draw with Costa Rica. A draw was needed for the Oscar Rendoll Gomez-coached side against punchbags Nicaragua in the final game and they got more than that, winning 4-1.
This guaranteed a route to the following year’s Pan-American Championship where they duly played the role of whipping boys, losing all five games, and conceding 28 goals.
With seven teams involved in the 1953 CCCF Championship, Panama weren’t expected to defend their title, but finishing last with a single point was something of a shock.
Panama failed to enter the World Cup qualifying system until 1978. It was a difficult debut, despite an encouraging day one 3-2 win over Costa Rica and then a one-all draw with El Salvador. But the Panamanians lost the next four games – including a 7-0 thrashing to Guatemala – to finish bottom.
Various failed campaigns followed and it was not until the appointment of José Eugenio Hernández in 2004 that Panama’s fortunes began to improve. Hernández was an experienced hand, having managed Colombian sides Millonarios, Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Cali.
Within a year Panama was contesting its first Gold Cup in 12 years and sprung a few shocks. Having finished second in their group behind Honduras, Panama required penalties to beat South Africa – whose geographical exclusivity didn’t deter them from being invited – in the quarter-finals. Panama were underdogs in the semi-final against Colombia, but mastered their supposed superiors, by 3-2 to make an unlikely appearance in the final.
Again, the odds were stacked against them playing the United States in the final, at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, with the hosts including stars such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Kasey Keller.
Panama held on for an unlikely 0-0 draw after extra time. Three of Panama’s four penalty takers scuppered their shots and thus the US avoided embarrassment in their own backyard. Panama striker Luis Tejada received the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award while Jaime Penedo was awarded the Top Goalkeeper prize.
Jumpers for goalposts
English-Panamanian coach, Gary Stempel, took over from Hernandez and continued the upward climb. In 2009, after a quarter-final exit in the Gold Cup, Panama won their second piece of silverware. Having defeated Honduras 1-0 in the semi-final of the Copa Centroamericana, Panama faced Costa Rica in the final. The teams couldn’t be separated but this time Panama held firm in the penalty shoot-out, scoring with each attempt.
This was quite an achievement given what Stempel had to deal with.
“When I first arrived, well, let’s put it this way – it was as basic as it could get,” he said. “Many of the local league games were played on baseball pitches, they were played on concrete floors, shale surfaces, it was very, very basic stuff.
“There was very little support, very little infrastructure. As a coach you were buying your own footballs and nets. You were helping the players with their travel expenses.”
Stempel had previously been the U-20 coach and guided the country’s youth to the World Youth Cup in 2003 with a win against Mexico. “That really paved the way for all this,” said Stempel. “The people here get very excited about major triumphs like that. We beat Mexico to get to that World Cup and that was a huge thing at the time.”
At senior level Panama made the semi-finals of the 2011 Gold Cup and were runners-up again in 2013. For the first time, Panama were in contention for World Cup qualification after a flying start to qualifying for the 2014 edition.
As the top seed in Group C of the second round, Panama brushed aside Nicaragua and Dominica, winning all four games with the loss of just two goals. In the third round they finished second behind Honduras but a point ahead of Canada, to make it to the final stage. An opening day 2-0 win over Honduras in their rivals’ backyard was possibly the most crucial victory in the nation’s footballing history.
There, Panama’s campaign began in sloth-like fashion, with draws against Costa Rica in Panama City, where the visitors came from two goals down to snatch a point, and a stalemate against Jamaica in Kingston. A home win over Honduras and a draw against Mexico was followed by defeat against the United States, another 2-0 defeat in Costa Rica, draws against Jamaica and Honduras, and a loss to Mexico which seemed to have killed the dream. That was one of only two wins in 10 games for the usually dependable Mexicans, which used up four managers in the campaign, and Panama remained in with a slim hope of sneaking the play-off spot against New Zealand, if Mexico tripped up and they smashed the US.
Panama led twice against US, Torres giving them a 1-0 lead in the first half, and Tejada giving Panama the edge again with less than ten minutes to go. However, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in injury time to dash Panama’s dreams.
It was cruel, it was brutal, and there were tears on the pitch, but they would enjoy their own good fortune in time.
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