Panama's veteran generation has finally secured the nation's first World Cup ticket, but the ride is expected to end after three group games in Russia.

By 90Min
June 05, 2018

Even before the World Cup starts, Panama's story is one of the best of the tournament. A dramatic last-gasp qualification booked its place in Russia, and whatever happens, the whole team has already achieved hero status back home.

It's a good job that participation is a prize in itself for Panama, because it's unlikely to get much joy out of a difficult group. It has the high-profile fixtures befitting a World Cup campaign, but in all probability it will be looking at one or three points at best.

Los Caneleros do have a wily coach who has been around the block before. Hernan Dario Gomez led Colombia to the 1998 World Cup and was in charge of Ecuador when they made its tournament debut in 2002. Both sides were eliminated at the group stage, though, so Gomez will hope it's case of third time being the charm.

Panama is bursting with experience too. Six of the 23 men going to Russia have made over 100 appearances for their country, which is more than any other nation competing this summer. For most of them, their entire careers have led to this. Here's a closer look at Panama entering the World Cup.


How They Qualified

In the most dramatic way possible.

Two wins from its first nine games in the Concacaf hexagonal left Panama on the brink of another disappointment. It had to match Honduras's result in the final round of fixtures just to book a place in the intercontinental playoff.

The idea of automatic qualification only came into the equation when the USA found itself 2-0 down to already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago. Panama also trailed at halftime to Costa Rica before a highly controversial equalizer restored parity. Blas Perez tried and failed to bundle the ball across the line, but the goal was awarded anyway.

With Honduras leading against Mexico, Panama was heading for elimination. But then, two minutes from time, Roman Torres slammed in a late winner to send four million people crazy. Honduras dropped into the playoff, while the United States was shockingly knocked out.

It was poetic that Panama's qualification came at the expense of the side that broke its hearts four years earlier. Two late USA goals prevented Panama from reaching a winnable playoff in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.


Group Stage Games

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Panama's first World Cup match could hardly be more difficult. Drawn into Group G, it opens its campaign against Belgium in Sochi on June 18.

It doesn't get much easier for Los Canaleros after that. England is the next opponent in Nizhny Novgorod, where avoiding defeat will be imperative if they are to have any chance of progressing.

Barring a shock result or two, Panama and Tunisia will both be eliminated already by the time they meet in Saransk on matchday 3. Panama's training camp is in Saransk, whereas Tunisia will face a journey of over 1,000 miles from their base, so that may confer a home advantage of sorts.


Possible Route to the Final

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In the unlikely event that Panama does sneak through to the last 16, it would likely occur as a second-place finisher, and it would draw the winner of the less-predictable Group H, where Senegal, Poland, Colombia and Japan will battle for supremacy.

After that, if the rest of the tournament has gone to plan, you'd expect a quarterfinal against Germany, a semifinal against Spain or Argentina and then a final against France or Brazil.

But let's be realistic.


Squad

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Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucarest), Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco)

Defenders: Felipe Baloy (Municipal), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Erick Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)

Midfielders: Edgar Barcenas (Tapachula), Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Atletico Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitaro), Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent)

Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo Fabril), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sport Boys), Gabriel Torres (Huachipato)


Predicted Lineup

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(4-4-2) Jaime Penedo; Luis Ovalle, Roman Torres, Felipe Baloy, Adolfo Machado; Alberto Quintero, Gabriel Gomez, Anibal Godoy, Edgar Barcenas; Blas Perez, Gabriel Torres


Outlook

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After Costa Rica's exploits four years ago, we should be careful about writing off another CONCACAF nation in a group of death.

Panama's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It depends on how you describe its squad: experienced or aging. Between them, the players have more than 1,400 caps, but the average age of the squad will be among the highest at the tournament.

Panama had a good defensive record in qualifying so it may be able to prevent the thrashings that many are expecting at the hands of Belgium and England, but there is little to get excited about at the other end of the field. It scored just 16 goals in 16 qualifying games.

With most of this golden generation in their twilight years, Panama should just enjoy the ride. Qualification from the group is extremely unlikely, but a win or even a point would represent success.

in fact, even being at the tournament represents success for a nation consistently ranked outside the top 50 in the world.

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