For most teams in the competition, the World Cup is an opportunity. Once a team has qualified for the big tournament, they then set their sights on what success at the World Cup would look like, and then they endeavor to go realize that success. What counts as success of course varies from country to country. For some it’s qualifying for the knockout rounds. For others it’s giving a good push for a semifinal appearance. For a select few it’s winning the whole thing. Regardless of where exactly the bar is set, for the majority of teams it’s what they do at the World Cup that determines whether or not the national team has been successful. Panama are an exception. For Panama, simply being there makes this World Cup a triumph of historic proportion.
That’s because this is the first World Cup Panama have ever qualified for. Panama’s fight was during the qualification process, and their goal was to make history by getting to Russia. You could tell by the explosion of joy on the pitch and in the stands and around the entire country after Panama beat Costa Rica (and, crucially, the U.S. lost to Trinidad & Tobago) on the final day of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to secure their place in this summer’s tournament how much getting to the World Cup meant to Panamanians. On that day in October of 2017, Panama’s dream had already been realized.
Panama aren’t the only debutants at this World Cup. Iceland too are making their first appearance on the sport’s biggest stage. But there’s a big difference between Iceland’s level and Panama’s. Iceland have a legitimately strong team that qualified for Russia with ease and learned at the Euros two years ago that they can stand toe-to-toe with anybody. Panama, in contrast, were regularly outclassed even in CONCACAF play (their record during qualifying was six wins, five draws, and five losses) and will be wildly overmatched in most of their matches.
For those reasons, there’s no realistic hope for Panama to make it out of their group. Panama instead will focus on things like trying to keep their first ever World Cup clean sheet, scoring their first ever World Cup goal, and maybe nabbing their first ever World Cup point. And while those modest goals may seem minor when compared to Germany’s and France’s and Brazil’s aims to lift the trophy on July 15th, I bet you won’t find many countries in the whole field who’ll treasure their time in Russia more than Panama and their fans.
Goalkeepers: Jaime Penedo (Dinamo București), José Calderón (Chorrillo), Álex Rodríguez (San Francisco)
Defenders: Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), Felipe Baloy (Municipal)
Midfielders: Gabriel Gómez (Atlético Bucaramanga), Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Valentín Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Ricardo Ávila (Gent II), Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), José Luis Rodríguez (Gent II)
Forwards: Blas Pérez (Municipal), Gabriel Torres (Huachipato), Ismael Díaz (Deportivo Fabril), Luis Tejada (Sport Boys), Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense)
Los Canaleros (The Canal Men)
Hernán Darío Gómez
Player to Watch
From an aesthetic point of view, Panama’s attack is pretty much restricted to the narrow band between ugly and non-existent. For that reason, we can’t really in good faith recommend you make a point to keep an eye out for one of their more advanced players. (Though Blas Pérez seems like a pretty cool guy.) So because Panama will spend almost all of their time in Russia packed deep into their own territory trying to keep goals out, and because he actually does have the ability to score a screamer or two, and because his hair is absolutely phenomenal, we’ve picked Román Torres as the guy to look out for.
Torres is a central defender and is probably Panama’s best player. None of Panama’s players are good enough to play for a team in one of the world’s good leagues, and Torres is no exception, as he plays in MLS for the Seattle Sounders. However, MLS and the Sounders qualify as relatively prestigious when compared to some of the even scruffier leagues and teams Panama’s players compete in at club level, so his pedigree is one of the best.
Plus, as he demonstrated with the goal that sent Panama to Russia, he can score beauties from time to time:
On top of that, his dreads are amazing:
He really is the one to watch. Or at least look at.
How They Play
Extremely defensively. Panama’s strategy here will be to pack in as many bodies as possible into the defensive zone to make life difficult for the likes of Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling. Panama’s matches will likely be the most defensive ones in the whole tournament. Whichever formation they choose—through World Cup qualification and in the friendly matches since Panama have experimented with the 4-4-2, 5-4-1, and 4-1-4-1 setups—it will probably entail Blas Pérez alone up top and nine others behind him staying as deep and compact as is feasible.
Panama’s World Cup performances won’t be pretty, even if they’re successful and the Canaleros somehow find a way to snatch a point or three from their Group G opponents. But prettiness isn’t the point. The point is that Panama will have World Cup performances to watch and analyze and rejoice over at all for the first time in their history, and for that reason any strategies they come up with will be beautiful in the eyes of their fans.
Group G Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 17, 11 a.m.: Belgium vs. Panama at Fisht Stadium
June 24, 8 a.m.: England vs. Panama at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 28, 2 p.m.: Panama vs. Tunisia at Mordovia Arena