2018 Russia World Cup: Is Panama the Cup’s Cinderella?
2018 Russia World Cup: Is Panama the Cup’s Cinderella?
Panama counts with a semi-professional football league where not many players are getting a very low payment and the stadiums there are not compared to the ones in other countries in the region; however, this was not enough to stop the national selection from earning a transcendental classification to the 2018 Russian World Competition. According to a lot of people this team is going to be the Cinderella of the tournament and the rest of the teams should not have any difficulties to defeat it. Are they going to be able to stand against this unpromising prediction?
Five years ago, the Panamanian selection was very close to get a ticket to attend Brazil World Cup; however, they missed it after two goals in discount time versus the American team. Now, they were close to be in a similar situation, but this time they achieved a spectacular and controversial win against Costa Rica, getting a place. This way, Panama and Iceland are debuting in World Cups, and the Technical Director (DT), the Colombian Hernan Gomez ("Bolillo"), is now a legend, being the second DT who has managed himself to lead three different teams to a World Cup, Colombia in France 1998 and, then, Ecuador in Korea-Japan 2002.
"Bolillo" started directing Panama on February 2014 and the results of the national selection immediately improved. On that year, Panamanians were third in the Center America Cup, and in 2015 they got bronze in the Gold Cup. Nevertheless, just a few people trusted Panama to get one of the three tickets offered by Concacaf to Russia World Cup, because, supposedly, these positions were for the outstanding ones from the region: Mexico, Costa Rica and United States. The field showed a different reality.
The path they had to take until that decisive game versus the Costa Ricans on Rommel Fernandez Stadium was a very difficult one. They ended on the second place, after finishing the qualifying round, behind Costa Rica and followed by Jamaica and Haiti. With this, they guaranteed a ticket in the hexagonal final.
Since their first matches, the Panamanian players showed their very strong determination to get to Russia, after defeating Honduras and tying a goose egg with Mexico. The unexpected loosing versus Trinidad and Tobago brought about a lot of worries, but two other ties, versus Costa Rica and The United States made them trustful again. Nevertheless, two defeats, first versus Mexico and then versus The United States put the Panamanian team on the edge of elimination, because when closing the hexagonal they needed “a miracle”: The United States to lose versus Trinidad and Tobago and then having them win, as locals, over the already classified Costa Rica.
Surprisingly for the soccer world, both things happened. On the “Rommel Fernandez”, the Costa Ricans argued till the end, because they thought the first goal should have never count, so as the ball never crossed the line, but the referee considered the action as valid, and then, on the 88th minute, Roman Torres scored a great goal causing a national party in Panama.
Rivals within the Cup
After taking places, Panama was included in group G, where they are going to have to play versus two of the strongest rivals: Belgian and England and they will also see an African team: Tunisia. Here, the favorite teams are the European; while the Panamanian team has been known as the Cinderella in this cup. Precisely, that underestimation of the team might be an advantage, so as this will free them from a lot of pressure, and although perhaps not even the most faithful fans believe in the selection to move on to the last sixteen, the truth is that the team with the most advanced average age is going to try to prove the world that their classification was not by chance. A triumph over Tunisia and two good demonstrations versus Belgian and England would be an outstanding performance for Panama.
The Men in “Bolillo´s” Team
Panama will perform in Russia with the best generation of soccer players of their history. Within the possible line-up there might be athletes from foreign leagues, mainly the Soccer Major League and some other performing in different Latin American cups.
The reference player will be the 36 year-old goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who has worn the national selection uniform 128 different times, what makes him the second Panamanian with more international matches, only surpassed by Gabriel Gomez. Penedo has been present in all the best moments of the team, among them the final in the Gold Cup 2005 and 2013, achieving in both editions the Golden Glove and the third place in the 2015 version. The other goalkeepers that might be present in the World Cup are Jose Calderon and Luis Mejia.
As defenders "Bolillo" Gomez might have Roman Torres, Roberto Chen, Fidel Escobar and Jan Carlos Vargas. As left laterals he might count on Luis Ovalle and Eric Davis, as right lateral Michael Murillo, playing as center Ricardo Avila, while Armando Cooper might play as midfielder, Ismael Diaz will be on the outside left (if he recovers from his injury) and Blas Perez, Luis Tejada and Gabriel Torres might line up as attackers.
Perez has been within the Panamanian selection for 18 years and he is the second best scorer, with 42 goals, only surpassed by Tejada, with 43.
The Panamanian selection will perform in four training matches before playing on June 18th versus Belgian. This match is going to be classified as historical for the Latin American soccer. Let´s hope the Panamanian team can accomplish what their coach asks for, to perform a worthy role in the World Cup.