MOSCOW — In a way, when that image of Román Torres tearing up as Panama’s national anthem played in Sochi spread across the planet, Los Caneleros already were winners. The ensuing Group G game and result—a 3-0 loss to Belgium—won’t be as memorable as Los Canaleros’ presence. On Monday in Sochi, Torres and his teammates did what they came to this World Cup to do—they made history, represented their country and competed.
There are two parts to every World Cup. The first is the group stage, and to a lesser extent the round-of-16. The second follows a couple of rest days, which serve as a breather following a breakneck three weeks. That part comprises the knockout games that reduce eight elite teams to one.
Typically, the host nation empties noticeably between the two. Three quarters of the field has been eliminated, and most fans and media head home. Some follow their teams out of the tournament. Others planned to stay only during the group stage, when the schedule was locked in and travel easier to arrange.
During the first part of a World Cup, the host country is full, and it’s as much about the party as it is the competition. During the second, the focus narrows considerably. By then, it’s all business.
If you’re a favorite, or if you’re under pressure, or if you have high expectations or big names or a promising trajectory, that first part is prelude. But if you’re Panama, it’s everything. It’s history, validation and the unexpected but deserved fulfillment of a dream. And if you’re a fan, it’s an almost guaranteed good time.
The scene here in Moscow during the first week of the World Cup, where the avenues surrounding the Kremlin have been choked with supporters and where pedestrian streets like Nikolskaya and Kamergersky have become de facto outdoor bars, is testament. Nikolskaya is a 500-yard-long mosh pit. The capital is the tournament’s hub, and throngs of Mexicans, Peruvians and Argentines have passed through, as well as Saudis, Iranians and Egyptians. There’s color and cacophony, 24/7. But in a couple weeks, a significant majority will be gone. Enjoy it now.
Every tournament features favorites and underdogs. Panama probably isn’t the worst side at this World Cup. It’s not the smallest or lowest ranked. But considering its history—this is a country that, like the USA, has taken soccer seriously only for a few decades—and the fact that it’s making its Word Cup debut as a shock qualifier from a relatively weaker region, almost nothing is expected from this team.
Add the fact that Panama had to open with Belgium, a dark-horse title contender stocked with world-class players, and Los Canaleros have little choice but to enjoy the experience and take from it what they can. Recall the agony of San Zusi nearly five years ago, when Panama came so close to qualifying only to throw it all away, and it’s easier to feel the appreciation, gratitude and emotion of the moment.
Before the Belgium game, at least, it sounded like that was Panama’s approach. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who’s 36 and has played for his country 131 times, said Sunday, “We are delighted to be here. It’s truly been a very long road to get here, but we are elated. We’re very, very happy. We are delighted to be representing an entire country and this World Cup, and we're full of joy.”
So Penedo is a walking thesaurus for happiness. And his coach, the veteran Colombian manager Hernán Darío Gómez, was so at ease that he confirmed his starting 11 and 4-1-4-1 formation a day before the game. Most coaches do not do this. But what was Gómez going to do, make use of his world-class depth and pull one over on Belgium?
“The most important thing as we’ve been discussing in the team is to be able to go back to panama with our head high, feeling proud of the work we’ve done here,” Gómez said. He then explained how the gap between his team and Belgium was much larger than the one between Iceland and Argentina, who drew, 1-1, in Moscow. He also ragged on his own squad’s finishing. Panama scored just nine goals in 10 Concacaf Hexagonal games, and apparently still “lack[s] that calm, tranquil finish,” according to the coach.
Panama knows what it is, and it's not hiding it. It did well in Monday’s first half, disrupting Belgium’s ability to hold the ball and connect with striker Romelu Lukaku. Torres did a bit of emergency defending, Penedo had a couple nice saves and Panama perhaps can take some pride in the fact that it was 0-0 at half. Belgium’s Dries Mertens finally put the favorites on the board with a fabulous 47th-minute volley, and then Lukaku finished off the game with a pair of goals. Belgium will move on, focused firmly on that second part of the World Cup.
For Panama, there’s England and then Tunisia, and then likely a flight home. But they won’t leave losers.
“Our only goal is to improve, day after day,” Gómez said Sunday. “It’s truly beautiful to be here. … There are so many things about a World Cup, and every time you think about it you feel really good, really comfortable, really grateful—grateful to the players for having got us here. To be able to bump into people from Panama who’ve come all the way here to Russia to watch the games—this happens at every World Cup and it feels you with joy, but also commitment and responsibility.”
That was evident on Torres's face. This may be the first week of the tournament, but it was a World Cup image that'll live on.