Pioneering football in Panama: meet Gary Stempel, the man who “made us who we are”

Pioneering football in Panama: meet Gary Stempel, the man who “made us who we are”

“Gary is one of the main people in this film. Gary got hold of us very young. We barely had any resources. He told us to make the effort, that he could see a lot of talent, not to give up. He gave us the chance to play at under-17 level, under-20 – the first World Cup – under-21, the full team. It was Gary who discovered us and made us who we are. He educated us, off the pitch too, gave us a different mentality: however bad the situation, we could overcome it.” Panama’s all-time record cap holder Gabriel Gómez, speaking to the Guardian in 2018

Midway through our interview, Gary Stempel tells a story from a visit to Honduras in 1997 that will sound familiar to anyone with experience of backpacking around Latin America. “We arrived in San Pedro Sula, which is now known as the murder capital of the world. We got there at about 9pm. and we get sent to the accommodation, but the facilities weren’t ready.

“There were no beds. They said they could put some mats on the floor and give us the beds the next day. I said you’ve got to be joking! It was 10pm. and the next day we needed to be in Puerto Cortez, a really rough port. So I just said sod this, let’s go to Puerto Cortez. So we found a McDonalds, and I bought everyone a meal, found a bus station and got everyone on the bus. 

“It was a three-hour journey to Puerto Cortez. We got there at 2am. It was dark, nothing was open. So there was a sudden realisation that we were going to have to spend the night on the road, sleeping in the bus station or somewhere. But I saw a place called Mr G’s and – I’m not a religious person – but I thought ‘this is for me, it’s Mr Gary’s!’

“I go there and knock on the door, and this old fella opens. I say, ‘look there are a few of us and we need somewhere to stay’, and he ushers us in. What it turned out to be is one of these mini-hotels that you pay by the hour for things you and your girlfriend want to do … and that’s where we were based for the duration of our stay.”

However, Stempel was not a penniless student and this was no gap-year jolly. He was in Honduras coaching the Panama team that had qualified to compete at the Central American Games. As his players crammed two or three to a room ­in the questionable surroundings of Mr G’s, Stempel put the whole stay on his personal credit card, unsure whether he would be reimbursed by the national federation back in Panama. 

“But actually, we got to the final,” he continues. “Nobody expected us to, but we did. We played Costa Rica and unfortunately we lost. But we got the silver medal, and that became quite an iconic team in Panama because it was the first one to do something at one of these tournaments. I think it woke people up.” 

That silver medal was also a significant personal achievement for Stempel. Born in Panama City to a local father and a British mother, he had moved to England when he was young and grew up in London. By the 1980s, he had found work as an outreach officer within Millwall’s pioneering community football scheme.

Read  |  Liverpool’s throw-in coach, Thomas Gronnemark, shares some of his insights

At the same time, he continued to spend holidays in Panama and was introduced to a completely different social and sporting environment by his father, who had been a professional baseball player. In 1996, in search of a new challenge, he took the “pretty crazy decision” to relocate his family to Central America. 

Stempel’s initial aim was to replicate the sort of club-driven “football in the community” projects that he had been involved with back in London, on the basis that such work could have an even greater impact in a less developed country. From very early on, it became clear that he faced an uphill struggle. 

“I soon found out from conversations with the federations and the Ministry of Sport that I was going nowhere,” he recalls. “Because sport was not – and is still not – used as a social tool. That kind of organisation and mindset just doesn’t exist. That was a really big struggle for me, in terms of my ambition to want to do something here, because I was getting a string of negative responses. I was close to heading back to England. I felt that I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

In need of regular income and aware of the potential sporting talent waiting to be discovered in Panama’s poorer districts, Stempel turned his attention to setting up football schools and youth academies. The youngsters he trained were often from broken families and had very little money.

Juggling his own limited resources, Stempel’s work was as much about finding ways to physically get his players to training and educating them in sporting values as it was about coaching. As a result, he became something of a father figure to many of them. “People always said I was paternalista to the players, either to compliment me or insult me,” he explains. It didn’t take long before his work began to get noticed and, soon enough, Stempel found his services in demand – not as a community worker, but as a youth coach. 

“Football in Panama didn’t look like anything at the time,” he recalls. “It was virgin, there was a league but they would play on baseball pitches. They would play on gravel; grass pitches were unheard of. There was little or no work done on developing the sport, particularly at youth level. But I wouldn’t say it was a cultural shock – when you go to another country, you try not to get too worked up about it.”

The trip to Honduras for the Central American Games was his first posting in charge of a national youth team. There followed a successful spell as manager of club side Panama Viejo, where he won the domestic championship for the first time. Then, in 2002, he was appointed head coach of the national under-20 team. A year later, that side became the first Panamanian team of any age group to qualify for a World Cup.

It was a landmark achievement, marking a breakthrough for football in Panama. Owing in part to the regional dominance of the USA, football has traditionally played second fiddle in the country to baseball and basketball. By qualifying to represent their country at the FIFA World Youth Championship in the United Arab Emirates, Stempel and his team had taken an important step towards raising the public profile of their sport.

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

The tournament also introduced the country to a group of young players, including midfielder Gabriel Gomez, who would form the core of the national side over the following 15 years. It turned out to be a period of unprecedented success, which would culminate in Panama’s debut appearance at the World Cup in 2018.

Stempel remained a constant presence throughout this golden age for Panamanian football, and notably won a further five domestic titles with San Francisco. He also enjoyed a brief but successful spell as national head coach between 2008 and 2009, leading the team to the Central American Nations Cup, Panama’s first piece of international silverware. But above all, his adopted nation never forgot the role that he had played in laying the foundations for their success with the national under-20 and under-23 teams.

The Londoner is characteristically modest when asked about his own contribution to Panama’s improved performances on the international stage. “There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Because once we started getting the belief that the youth teams could compete with the big teams in the region – Honduras, Costa Rica, beat Mexico – and go to World Cups, then the logical next step is that the senior team can replicate that.”

However, the players themselves were never in any doubt as to the importance of Stempel’s input. “Gary was our first coach,” forward Blas Perez explained to the Guardian in 2018. “He opened the doors to us at a very different moment in Panamanian football history and gave us knowledge. His management was phenomenal.” 

When Perez, captain Roman Torres and their teammates – many of whom had played under Stempel at one time or another – took to the field in a World Cup match for the first time against Belgium in Sochi, their old coach was looking on proudly from up in the stands. He had travelled to Russia as a special guest of the national FA. “There were tears up there,” Stempel recalls. “Latin people don’t hold back their emotions, not like the Brits! They’re very up front with it.”

Panama’s qualification for the World Cup was the culmination of the country’s progress as a footballing nation, progress that could be traced back to the newfound sense of belief and resilience that Stempel had helped to instil when working with the younger age groups at the turn of the century. 

However, the appearance at Russia 2018 only tells half the story of the Londoner’s achievements since moving back to Central America. Although he quickly became known for his exploits in the dugout, Stempel never lost sight of the reason that he had returned to Panama in the first place.

“The whole concept of football in the community, it’s a strange thing. It’s the reason I came to Panama, but then I ended up in mainstream coaching,” he explains. “But I did carry on with the community work – I just didn’t do it as I’d originally set out to, from within a club structure. Once I got established, winning the league and so on, it gave me a bit more status. So I used that to my benefit and set up a lot of independent programmes.” 

In other words, Stempel was able to use his reputation within football to raise funds for the sort of community development projects that he had originally set out to establish back in 1996. Notably, in partnership with the government and UNICEF, he has run a project aimed at providing sport, education and employment opportunities to gang members in Panama City. One of the project’s aims was to use football as a means to break down barriers between rival gangs and to encourage them to work together. 

He has also set up various initiatives for inmates in Panamanian prisons, one of which came at the request of a former player who had spent a number of years in jail awaiting trial. “He had three trials that were abandoned,” Stempel recounts, “and on the fourth occasion, he actually went to court and was let off. So he lost nearly five years of his life, and you don’t get any compensation for that.”

Following his release, together they set up a pioneering inter-prison football tournament that ran for five years. “Of course, for something like that, you need the police and government on your side. There was always a pretty heavy security presence, but we never had any trouble.” 

In addition to the praise that he has received for his work with the players who qualified for the World Cup, Stempel has also received recognition for his community work from the most unlikely of sources. Last year, he took a call from the British Ambassador to Panama, who informed him that he had been chosen for an MBE.

Although he initially thought that it was a joke – “I told him to piss off!” – the ambassador eventually managed to convince Stempel that he was serious, explaining that he himself had put the Londoner’s name forward after learning more about his services to youth and sport in Panama. And so Stempel travelled back to London in October 2019 and received his MBE in person from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. 

Although still visibly delighted with the honour, if not a little bemused, Stempel insists that it has not changed his outlook. “You don’t do it for the awards. You do it because you feel that through football, you can change people’s lives, you can change people’s quality of life. And even more so in a third world country.”

Domestic titles, international silverware, under-20 World Cup qualification, and now an MBE. Not bad, I suggest, for a south London community outreach officer who set sail to Central America with nothing but an idea to his name.

“Yeah, but out of everything – the MBE, the silver medal, taking Panama to its first World Cup in 2003, winning the championships, winning the Nations Cup – all that is very nice. But if you ask me what’s the greatest achievement, I would always answer seeing Roman Torres play in the World Cup, seeing Gabriel Gomez. These are kids that I was fortunate enough to work with when they were 16 or 17 years old. Seeing them fulfil their dreams. No MBE could get even close to the satisfaction you get from that.”

By Rob Hunt

Photo: Ray Collins

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