When it comes to the World Cup, it seems that each individual fan gets excited about something different. Some love the prospect of watching future stars prove themselves on the international stage, others love the wacky opening ceremonies, and many enjoy seeing some of the world’s lesser known stadiums.
For me, the best part of the World Cup happens about three weeks before the first match, when I finally take a look at each of the groups, actually remember which countries have qualified, and then spend five minutes scratching my head thinking ‘wait… how the f*** did New Zealand qualify for the World Cup’.
Admittedly it’s a little geeky, but watching the smaller footballing nations try to navigate their way through the group stages, is undoubtedly my favourite thing about the World Cup. Needless to say, 2006 was a good year (thanks again Angola, Togo, and Trinidad & Tobago – your disappointing performances and severe lack of goals will not be forgotten).
Looking at this year’s nations, the name that immediately jumps out is Panama, and not just because they share a group with England. Panama are an oddity, because they have never before qualified for the World Cup finals, and in truth, have only ever come close to qualifying on one occasion.
Panama did not attempt to qualify for a World Cup until 1976, and it’s fair to say that their first campaign was a complete disaster. Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) lost four consecutive matches in the pre-qualification round (including a 7-0 thrashing from Guatemala), putting an end to their hopes of participating in Argentina ’78.
Their situation failed to improve until 2014, when against the odds, Panama were handed a slim chance of qualifying for the upcoming tournament in Brazil. Approaching the final qualification match, the Central American side required an unlikely victory over the USA, and needed Mexico to lose to Costa Rica. After 90 minutes, both Panama and Costa Rica lead 2-1, but following a tense few minutes of injury time, the USA scored twice, leaving Panamanian fans heartbroken.
Then almost four years later, this happened:
Of course, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time is always going to be an emotional affair; however, when centre-back Roman Torres scored that thunderous goal to send his side to Russia, he finally closed a page on one of the most remarkable chapters of Panama’s footballing history. A story of passion, controversy, and even murder.
It all began in 2014, when following their qualification heartbreak, Panama opted to place Colombian manager Hernan Dario Gomez in charge of the national team. Known as ‘The Baton’, Gomez had previously taken both his native Colombia and Ecuador to the World Cup finals, in 1998 and 2002 respectively; however, the 62-year-old was certainly a controversial choice. Just three years prior to his appointment, Gomez had made huge headlines in South America for attacking a woman outside a pub in Bogota – the woman had apparently questioned his tactics. Gomez would later express sincere remorse for his actions, yet many in Panama suggested that his appointment would only add further negativity to an already struggling national team.
Panama’s qualification journey started in late 2015, when they were drawn against Jamaica, Haiti, and Costa Rica in Round 4 of the regional qualifiers. Los Canaleros’ high-energy 4-4-2 formation and penchant for late goals, guided them to a second-placed finish in the group behind Costa Rica, allowing them access to the final round, commonly know as ‘The Hexagonal’.
After getting off to a fine start with a victory over Honduras and a respectable draw with Mexico, Panama’s luck began to change, and when they lost 1-0 to Trinidad and Tobago – a team that everyone was expected to beat, Russia suddenly seemed a million miles away.
Hernan Dario Gomez’s side responded with a 1-1 draw with the USA, before being dealt a catastrophic blow, that would have a profound impact on not only the team, but the entire country.
On April 15, 2017, midfielder Amilcar Henriquez was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his home in Colón. Three men were arrested under suspicion of murder, yet so far there has been no explanation as to why the player was killed. Henriquez had made a total of 85 appearances for Panama and was a key figure in the squad’s ongoing qualification campaign.
Los Canaleros vowed to achieve qualification in tribute to Henriquez’s memory, and their fates ultimately rested on the final match of the group. Panama needed a win against a far superior Costa Rica side, and also needed the USA, who had qualified for every World Cup since Mexico ’86, to lose against bottom-placed Trinidad and Tobago.
Amazingly, Trinidad and Tobago took a 2-0 lead over the USA, before winger Christian Pulisic netted to make it 2-1. At the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City, the home side had managed to pull the game back to 1-1, thanks to a controversial strike that did not appear to cross the goal line.
“I’m gonna tell you something.” said Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. “I’ve had to cry, literally cry with a referee’s decisions. I’ve come out of some matches really, really sad because of a referee’s decision. I’ve always said: ‘One time it will be my turn to laugh and to jump in happiness about a wrong decision!”
With three minutes of regular time remaining, centre-back Roman Torres put the ball in the back of the net to make it 2-1, sending Panama to the World Cup for the first time in their history.
Panama’s president Juan Carlos Varela announced that the following day would become a national holiday, with every school in the country to close, so that kids could play football and celebrate.
While Iceland may be the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup, there’s no question that Panama are this year’s unsung heroes. Hernan Dario Gomez’s side may have struggled in their recent friendly matches with Iran, Denmark, and Switzerland, but the mere fact that they have managed to reach the finals is nothing short of miraculous.
We’re unlikely to see Los Canaleros cause too many upsets over the summer, but if you’re a neutral fan looking to get behind a team, Panama certainly deserve your support.