PANAMA CITY (dpa) – Panama are, along with Iceland, the only teams set to play their first-ever World Cup in Russia 2018. Panama earned their historic berth for the tournament with a dramatic and controversial 2-1 win against Costa Rica in the last round of qualifiers. The country’s population poured out onto the streets and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela decreed a public holiday to celebrate a historic feat.
Colombian-born manager Hernan “Bolillo” Gomez leads a group of veterans whose pillars are Roman Torres, Gabriel Gomez, Luis Tejada and Blas Perez. The team’s potential for the World Cup remained unknown, however, and experience tends to be an asset at such tournaments.
Panama’s immediate goal in Russia should be to enjoy the event and gain key international experience to tackle further challenges in the future, but they will need to compete in a group where Belgium, England and Tunisia look stronger on paper. Panama will at least face little pressure, and they can focus on showing off the qualities that got them to Russia.
They qualified for the World Cup with a poor record of nine goals in their favour and ten against, but they won crucial matches and held on to tight scores, which may serve as a warning for their rivals.
“I spoke [to the players] one by one about what I wanted from them, I told them how things are. I told them that playing in the national team is about bringing a country together,” “Bolillo” Gomez said to express Panama’s pride ahead of their first World Cup.
“A World Cup is not the same in Brazil and in Russia. Here, we Latinos are more the visitors,” Gomez told dpa. “Panama are a newer team, they are growing. Things will be tough.”
THE STAR: Roman Torres is Panama’s captain and star, as well as a national hero. The Seattle Sounders defender scored the 88th-minute goal that gave Panama a crucial win against Costa Rica in the last round of qualifying. He was also Panama’s top scorer in the qualifiers, along with striker Gabriel Torres, with two goals.
THE MANAGER: Hernan “Bolillo” Gomez is a real hero in Panama, as the only manager ever to lead the country’s national team to a World Cup. He previously managed Colombia and Ecuador quite successfully, although his most recent World Cup dates back to 2002. A fantastic motivator and a manager who generally delivers.
SCHEDULE: Belgium-Panama (18/6 in Sochi), England-Panama (24/6 in Nizhny Novgorod) and Panama-Tunisia (28/6 in Saransk).
DID YOU KNOW THAT... "Bolillo" Gomez is the Colombian manager who has taken part in the most World Cups? Russia 2018 is set to be his third edition of the tournament.