How Panama overcome past despair to find the ultimate glory in World Cup qualification

How Panama overcome past despair to find the ultimate glory in World Cup qualification

 

To taste the sweet, you must first have faced the pain. The joy of finally achieving your goals, of succeeding where you’d previously floundered, makes the ultimate attainment all the more satisfying. When dreams are shattered, and as a team you stoop and pick up the pieces and dare to dream again, the agony of the past can either shackle you or inspire you.

Panama have dealt with both sides of fortune in recent times. The joy of reaching their maiden World Cup in Russia 2018 contrasts sharply with the desolation felt just four years earlier. Then, after a long, tough qualifying campaign, a place in their first World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014 dangled tantalisingly in front of them, waiting to be claimed. Their dream was within their grasp. But that final step can be the hardest one to take.

The atmosphere in the Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City for the final 2014 World Cup qualifier was febrile, bursting with an intensity and emotion bordering on desperation. The visitors, the best team in CONCACAF at the time, the United States, had already qualified. The hope in Panama was that the Americans, who always face a tough task when visiting their Central American rivals in a whole host of ways, would go easy in this final qualifier with nothing on the line for them.

Further incentive for the Americans to take it easy – or so the Panamanians wished – was in the fact that should Panama claim the lone playoff spot, the regional giants of Mexico, the USA’s perennial rivals, would miss out on qualification altogether. Surely the Americans would happily see their old adversaries miss out? Or so the Panamanian wishful thinking went.

For a nation that historically has been far more concerned with baseball, basketball and boxing, it has taken a long time for Panama to become competitive at the world’s game. Belatedly entering the World Cup qualifiers for the first time for the 1978 edition, it was only after the turn of the century that Panama began to make a mark. 

First there was a debut appearance in the under-20 World Cup in 2003, although that ended disappointingly in three straight defeats in the group stage. But as some of that squad progressed through to the senior ranks, the first signs of meaningful progress emerged  Just two years later, the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup saw Panama astonishingly reach the final, only to lose their nerve after a goalless draw, succumbing to the United States on penalties.

There were signs of improvement at World Cup level too, as Panama made it to the final round Hexagonal group for the 2006 tournament. Los Canaleros were reaching increasingly higher levels, but the learning curve was steep. In that years’ Hex, Panama garnered just two points from their 10 games to finish last. Then, after so much progress, came a disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign in which Panama lost a second round two-legged tie with El Salvador and were eliminated long before the skirmishes really got serious. 

Nevertheless, the general trend of improvement continued apace. In 2007 they reached the final of the Copa Cetroamericana, and went further two years later by winning the 2009 edition, beating Coast Rica on penalties in the final. At Gold Cup level there were semi-final defeats in 2011 and 2015, either side of another appearance in the final itself in 2013. Panama were a team very much on the rise. By their standards, this all amounted to a run of unprecedented success.

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Present throughout many of these ups and downs with the national team, Luis Tejada was the rising star of what was beyond doubt Panama’s strongest ever team. In a much-travelled club career, Tejada earned his stripes playing across the border in neighbouring Colombia where he worked his way up through the leagues. He moved on to the UAE while there have also been spells in Mexico, Peru and the United States, as well as in Panama. 

What is evident throughout his itinerant club career is that he has never truly fitted in. There were no prolonged spells with any of his numerous clubs; no continued success; nowhere to really call home. And yet whenever he pulled on the red shirt of Panama, Tejada never looked out of place. 

In representing his nation, Tejada has found his true home and the highest points in his career. Having made his international debut in 2001 in a goalless draw with Trinidad and Tobago aged 20, Tejada has not only gone on to be his country’s most capped player – 104 by the latest count – he is also their all-time leading goal scorer with 43 strikes, just ahead of another of the old guard who is still going strong, Blas Pérez. 

He earned the accolade of Most Valuable Player at the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup, although that particular tournament ended in disappointment for Tejada as he missed his penalty in the decisive shoot-out with the US in the final.

 

2014

 

Tejada was the focal point of Panama’s attack through much of their successful spell, the tip of their attacking sword, and remained so as they began the qualifying process for the 2014 World Cup. Having achieved so much in the preceding years, hopes were high in Panama that this would finally be the occasion that Los Canaleros would make the final step to the global stage. Going into the final, pivotal match, Tejada had scored six goals in qualification so far, including two in the final round Hex in which Panama had struggled for goals throughout.

Indeed, it was in costly goalless draws with Jamaica and a struggling Mexico that had seen Panama slide from the reckoning. Going into the final round of matches, Panama sat in fifth place ahead of the decisive clash with the United States. Their position could’ve been more favourable had they not let a point slip in the Azteca away to Mexico in their previous match. 

Tejada had fired in an impressive equaliser to put Panama in reach of a vital point against their direct rivals for a playoff place.  However, just minutes from time, a spectacular bicycle kick from Raúl Jiménez gave Mexico – struggling for much of the qualifying campaign – a vital win. 

Amid a tense, volatile atmosphere, Panama set about their American opponents from the off, with a degree of urgency and focus that the US lacked, certainly during the first half.  They were duly rewarded with a half-time lead courtesy of a Gabriel Torres strike. The US fought back to equalise in the second half, but moments later a goal for Costa Rica against Mexico meant that Panama were one away from eliminating one of CONCACAF’s biggest powers, and claiming a playoff place for themselves.

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As the clock ticked on and the chances came and went, the pressure from Panama became increasingly frantic and a touch panicked. When Roberto Chen fired over a low cross from the right which appeared too close to the American goalkeeper Brad Guzan, there were only seven minutes remaining in the match – and in the whole campaign. 

Guzan attempted to palm the cross away but his deflection merely nudged the ball directly to Tejada. Panama’s record goalscorer did not need to be asked twice. He slotted the ball home to send the national stadium into delirium. Panama were seven minutes away from the playoffs and Mexico were all but out.

The tension became almost unbearable. Where there had been focus and drive earlier, now on the brink of history, Panama suddenly seemed paralysed by nerves, allowing the USA to push forward. Ninety minutes came and went, and Panama’s lead remained, but the drama was not done. There was to be a cruel twist to the dreams of a nation. 

Approximately 90 seconds into stoppage time, substitute Brad Davis looped a cross beyond the Panamanian defence where Graham Zusi met it with a faultless header into left-side of the Panama net. Where previously the stadium had been a buzz of noise and anticipation, now it was the setting for collective heart-break and an other-worldly silence. The players looked stunned, and the watching crowd disbelieving. That Aron Johansson added another American goal two minutes later as Panama desperately sought out an unlikely late winner seems desperately cruel. 

What had seemed so close just moments before was now so far beyond reach that only desolation and despair remained. When the end came for Panama, the tears began to flow freely. While some of the players lay disbelieving on the turf, others left the stage in floods of tears. The dream of qualifying for a first World Cup was there, waiting for Panama. But as they reached out to grab it, in an instant it was gone. How quickly hopes and dreams can be crushed and turned to dust.

The disappointment can linger. The shackles of the past can weigh heavy on both individuals and the team. It can be a colossal burden to bear. 

 

2018

 

Alongside Tejada in that cruellest of moments for the national team, Román Torres, a rugged, giant brute of a centre-back, was another of Panama’s stalwarts, having initially appeared for his country in 2005. Like Tejada, Torres’ club career has been an itinerant one, never settling long-term at one club. 

Much of his career has been spent in Colombia, primarily with top-tier side La Equidad. However, his time there was a frustrating one, with three loan spells elsewhere in Colombia preventing any sense of truly belonging. A move to Seattle Sounders in 2015 led to a lengthier spell in one location, and he has become a regular starter for the Major League Soccer side.

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But like Tejada, the pinnacle for Torres has always been the national team. In the colours of Los Canaleros, there have never been questions over whether Torres belongs. He is a part of the greatest generation of Panamanian players and has been a regular through the years of hope and heartbreak. 

As a teenager, Torres had been a striker of some note, playing amid the poverty and squalor of a Panama City slum. Aged 15, he’d performed well enough to earn a chance at a try-out camp for the under-17 national squad, and it was there that the young Torres made a quick decision that would change his life. One of the coaches, while splitting the 200 or so young hopefuls into position groups for the try-outs, asked for all forwards to raise their hands. 

A lot of hands were raised, with a subsequent call for defenders being distinctly less popular. Torres made a snap decision then and there to become a defender, seeing that as a far easier route to the top with significantly less competition. It was a choice that would see him become a professional and develop into a mainstay of the senior national side. Over the years he has gained a reputation as a tough, uncompromising defender, renowned for overpowering his opponents with brute force.

His formative years as a forward may have had some bearing on the fact that the two most famous incidents in his career have involved him putting the ball in the opponent’s net rather than stopping the opponent putting it in his. The first came in the 2016 MLS Cup final, where he took Sounders’ seventh penalty kick in an epic shootout with Toronto to win his team’s first MLS title. That this came only a few months after Torres had returned from nine months out with a cruciate knee injury spoke volumes for his resilience. The second came in making history for his national side. 

Going into the final round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Panama sat where they had done throughout the campaign – outside the automatic qualifying places. Having been humbled 4-0 in the penultimate match in Orlando by a rampant and ruthless US, it seemed that a playoff place was the best they could hope for. 

To secure the final automatic spot, they would not only need to beat Costa Rica at home, but they also needed the favour of all favours from the worst team in the final round. With the United States on the brink of qualifying, surely Trinidad and Tobago were in no place to provide the assistance needed in beating the Americans?

While the half-time news from Couva in Trinidad was astonishingly positive for Panama, with Trinidad and Tobago two goals to the good against a lethargic and seemingly complacent USA, it mattered little for Panama at that point. Los Canaleros were trailing against Costa Rica, leaving them sitting in their familiar fifth place as things stood.  

Then came the most controversial moment of the final round of qualifiers as the referee, Guatemalan Walter López, was the only person present to believe that an inadvertent deflection off Blas Pérez from a corner had actually crossed the Costa Rican goal line. On such moments the world can turn. The hand of fate is a fickle one, and the direction of destiny is often decided by such fine margins. And while the US struggled to come back against Trinidad, Panama seized their good fortune and ran with it. 

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They poured forward in search of the winner that would take them through, and as with four years earlier, it would all come down to the final frantic frenzied moments. With two minutes remaining on the clock, the score was still 1-1. meaning that the US’s imminent defeat in Trinidad would mean a playoff place for the Americans rather than the expected automatic qualification, with Honduras qualifying directly. But as Panama know to their cost, at the very last moment, things can drastically change.

Having taken it upon himself to push forward late on, abandoning his defensive remit, Torres, captaining the side on that momentous day, latched on to a flicked header and found himself tussling with a Costa Rican defender, bearing down on goal. He fired home an unerring, clinical right-footed shot from just inside the box, sending the stadium into utter chaos as the ball bulged the back of the net. Torres ran towards the touchline, swinging his shirt high above his head, while the stands all around him erupted in ecstasy, before moments later being mobbed by his jubilant teammates. 

Four years earlier, they had been in the same position as the match entered stoppage time only for it all to go horribly wrong. The players, largely still the same, had come through that, battered and scarred but still fighting. The wounds of the past served as both a warning and an inspiration for the present. Panama would not let it slip again. 

The final whistle soon after, bringing with it relief and delight in equal measure, saw the celebrations kick into overdrive once more with Torres mobbed as fans stormed the pitch in celebration.

This last gasp win saw Panama leapfrog not only the United States, beaten and humiliated in Trinidad, but also Honduras to steal the final automatic playoff place on goal difference. And there was the surely some sense of sweet satisfaction in playing a part in eliminating the US after the events of four years before, in addition to two Gold Cup final defeats.

For Torres, it wasn’t his only crucial late goal of the campaign, as it could also be argued that his late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Honduras was as important given Panama just pipped their Central American rivals for the automatic play-off place.

The headline in Panama’s La Prensa newspaper the following morning called it ‘The Miracle of Roman’, with the star of the show assured of his place in Panamanian sporting history. Alongside Roberto Duran’s victory over Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, it was one of the biggest sporting moments Panama had ever seen, sparking some of the most jubilant celebrations the country had known.

“Four years ago there were tears of pain,” ran the La Prensa editorial. “Now there are tears of happiness. Panama is going to Russia 2018 and the hero is called Roman Torres.”

By Aidan Williams  @yad_williams

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