Having secured qualification at the expense of the USA, Russia 2018 will be Panama’s first-ever World Cup.
The Central American country with a population of just four million is far from a traditional footballing hotbed; the national team’s exploits in qualification only recently enraptured the national conscience, with baseball the country’s favoured pastime.
However, in Russia, Los Canaleros (the Canal Men) will be cheered on vociferously back home, where a squad of overachieving veterans have earned hero status.
An unfavourable group draw means Panama’s hopes of progress to the knockout stages are slim.
Currently 55th in the FIFA World Rankings, they are the only side in Group G not ranked inside the world’s top 15, and begin their campaign with the unenviable task of facing the talent-rich, third-ranked Belgium on June 18.
Road to the World Cup
After narrowly missing out on making it to a qualification play-off for the 2014 World Cup, Panama booked their place at Russia 2018 in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Already punching well above their weight, Panama entered the final round of qualifying fixtures in with a shot at third place in the CONCACAF (the North, Central American and Caribbean federation) standings, and thus automatic qualification, behind Mexico and Costa Rica.
But they were reliant on the stars aligning, requiring qualification hopefuls USA to slip up against already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago, while themselves needing three points against arch-rivals Costa Rica.
The USA duly stumbled, losing 2-1 at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva. But the Panamanian faithful were left on tenterhooks until the 88th minute, when Seattle Sounders defender Román Torres netted a dramatic late winner against Costa Rica, earning a 2-1 win at the Estadio Rommel Fernández, cueing wild celebrations among the 26,000-strong home support.
Results have been less favourable since that magical night in October last year, however, with friendly defeats to Iran (2-1), Denmark (1-0) and Switzerland (6-0) and a 1-1 draw with Wales hardly inspiring confidence.
Tactically, Panama’s approach is one typical of many underdog sides. They prioritise defensive solidity, often fielding five across the back and four in midfield, with a single striker – usually 37-year-old Blas Pérez – ploughing a lonely furrow in attack.
From there, when possession is regained, they look to launch quick counter-attacks, luring their opponents in before springing into the spaces they leave behind.
Panama’s greatest strength is their togetherness and the mutual understanding between players. Many of the key performers within the squad – such as captain Torres, combative midfielder Gabriel Gómez, goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, centre-back Felipe Baloy and striker Pérez – are well into their 30s, with more than a decade’s international experience and over 100 caps.
Their underdog tale is an inspiring one, but, due to their ageing squad and defensive tactics, don’t expect Panama’s style of football to thrill.
Operating from a deep defensive block, protecting their goal with a row of five defenders stationed just outside their penalty area, Panama can be a tough nut to crack, conceding just 15 goals from 16 total qualification games.
Of all the teams within CONCACAF, Panama won the the third-most possessions inside the defensive third (214) during qualification, behind only Mexico (277) and Costa Rica (261).
They also ranked second for headed clearances (95), and third for interceptions (183) and tackles (215).
Star player: Román Torres
Panama are able to boast two strikers with impressive international goal returns in the shape of Pérez and Luis Tejada, both with 43 goals in over 100 caps, while Gómez, despite being 34 and the country’s record appearance maker, with 143 caps, is an energetic and consistent performer in central midfield.
Defence is Panama’s strength, though, where Dinamo Bucharest keeper Penedo has a wealth of experience (130 caps) and 37-year-old Baloy retains the athleticism of a much younger man.
But Torres, the captain, central defensive linchpin and crucial goal-scorer of the historic qualifying campaign, is the star of the show – and a relative youngster at a sprightly 32.
Torres has plied his trade in Major League Soccer with Seattle Sounders since 2015, and he became an instant national hero when he stuck Panama’s late winner against Costa Rica last October.
Manager: Hernán Darío Gómez
When Panama secured their place at Russia 2018, manager Gómez became only the second coach ever to qualify for the World Cup with three different nations, having done so with Colombia, his home country, in 1998 and Ecuador four years later.
Gómez has been less successful in club football and returned for a brief, fruitless spell in charge of Colombia in 2011. He took up the Panama post in 2014, and guiding Los Canaleros to World Cup qualification can be regarded as his greatest achievement.
The 62-year-old attributes much of his success with Panama to not only his tactical know-how but also to how his vast experience has given him the ability to develop an “understanding of the idiosyncrasies” of any nation he takes charge of.
The odds are stacked firmly against Panama making it beyond the group stage. Success, for them, will be defended by there ability to hold their own against superior opposition.
Belgium and England should, on paper, represent insurmountable obstacles for Panama, while Tunisia, too, will fancy their chances of swatting aside the Central Americans.
In their first-ever World Cup, if they can avoid a drubbing and maybe, just maybe, pick up a first World Cup point, this ageing generation of Panama players will be able to look back on their international efforts with immense pride.