Three Hopes, One Fear: Panama at the 2018 World Cup



When I predicted during the March 2017 World Cup Qualifier between the US and Panama that Panama would be going to Russia, I did not think it would come at the expense of the US. But as the Yanks sit at home and lick their wounds, trying to figure out what happened and refuse to accept the truths staring them in the face, Los Canaleros are boarding a plane to Russia for their country’s very first World Cup. Panama had to know that the World Cup would not be easy, but the draw did them no favors, placing them in a group with darkhorse contender Belgium, England, and a sneaky strong Tunisia side.

Since realizing the dream that eluded them four years ago, The Canal Boys have ramped up their World Cup prep, scheduling friendlies with Old World sides Northern Island and Wales, along with fellow qualified sides Denmark and Switzerland. A 6-0 thrashing by the Swiss aside, Panama has competed valiantly with sides once thought to be well out of their league. While nothing is expected of Panama in their first World Cup, this side is awfully intriguing.


PANAMA’S GOLDEN GENERATION LIVES UP TO ITS NAME – This Panama side is the oldest team to qualify for Russia. Many of the players who were on the field when San Zusi killed their dreams of Brazil are still back, older, but wiser and hungrier after that experience. Players like Blas Perez, Jaimie Penedo, Luis Tejada, and Gabriel Gomez were part of what has been Panama’s “Golden Generation” that saw them rise from an afterthought that was bounced in the Second Round of qualifying in 2010 (two rounds before The Hex) after just two games against El Salvador to the team ready to lineup against mighty Belgium with the whole world watching.

WITH AGE COMES EXPERIENCE – There are six players on the roster who have more than 100 caps to their name, and several more who are not far behind. This is a group that has been together, highs, lows, and everywhere in between. If there’s one team where familiarity won’t be an issue, its Los Canaleros.

CONCACAF THUNDER – Lost in all the talk about the United States failure to qualify (and it was a failure no matter how you slice it) has been the improvement of CONCACAF in the last decade. Combining what happened to the US with the near failure of Mexico in the 2014 cycle, this is a punishing region where qualification is no longer automatic for the “big fish.” Punishing is the word because in addition to jumping on your failures, CONCACAF teams are gritty, rugged, incredibly dirty, and they will beat you up and turn the beautiful game into something much more ugly. Nobody embodies that more than this Panama side. England on the other hand is a squad of pampered, coddled, superstars who have never experienced anything like CONCACAF and should be grateful that they don’t have to play this game at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, where it would be even uglier. For Panama to have any shot, they’ll have to do it in ugly fashion, and that is the style that is right up their alley.


YOUR BEST ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH – The biggest challenge facing Los Canaleros is simple, the mismatch in talent between them and the rest of the group is GIGANTIC. Clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspurs are well represented among England and Belgium, and even Tunisia features several players on Ligue 1 rosters, Panama’s three European based players play in Romania, Slovakia, and Third Tier Spanish Football. What Panama is up against is unlike anything most of these players have ever seen, as experienced as they are.

I expect Panama to put up more of a fight than most expect, but if they earn more than one point in the Group Stage, with the final game against Tunisia being the most likely, I will be shocked. Still, The Canal Boys should be very proud of what they’ve achieved by being the smallest country to ever qualify for a World Cup. The question moving forward is how well they can capture the magic of the moment and build on it to make this a regular thing.


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