The incredible story of how Panama’s football team qualified for their first major tournament.
On December 20th 1989, the US launched a full military invasion of Panama. Estimates believe Operation Just Cause resulted in the loss of up to 7000 Panamanians and ended with the deposing of Military Dictator Manuel Noriega.
Known by many for military coups, narcotics, and a canal; Panama has often made the headlines in quite a derogatory fashion. Noriega’s Dignity Battalions acted like storm-troopers; a combatant militia that stood in the way of any attacks from both domestic and overseas opposition.
Luis Ovalle, Fidel Escobar, Roman Torres, Adolfo Machado and Jaime Penedo now form the Panamanian Football Team’s own Dignity Battalion; the last line of defence from any foreign threats.
With the odds stacked against them, Los Canaleros lined up against Costa Rica in October knowing only a victory and a US slip up in Trinidad would grant them their ticket to Russia. Panama’s dream looked left in tatters as Johan Vanegas put the Costa Ricans one up.
But for a country synonymous with conflict and fight, giving up was never an option. With the US enduring a nightmare in Trinidad, Gabriel Torres drew the hosts level with a goal marred in controversy, before namesake Roman Torres netted an 87th minute winner to send the 4 million population of Panama into dreamland.
Gabriel Torres’ equaliser came after a goal-line scramble, and the ball didn’t appear to cross the line. But with Russia confirmed for the Reds, fans and players alike won’t have lost any sleep over the ghost goal.
President Juan Carlos Varela tweeted: “You deserve it… Viva Panama!” A national holiday was subsequently called, allowing fans of a once war-torn nation to celebrate something miraculous that everyone had worked so hard to achieve.
After America’s invasion of Panama, a sense of irony prevailed when the plucky little nation got their own back against the States, crushing the dreams of wonderkid Christian Pulisic and co.
For a Baseball playing nation, reaching a football world cup was only a dream for many. The Liga Panameña de Fútbol is the top tier of the Panamanian football pyramid. To give some context to the size of the game in the country, current champions and most successful club C.D. Árabe Unido play their home games at Estadio Armando Dely Valdés in front of a capacity of 4,000 people.
Panama line up against England in Group G, alongside Belgium and Tunisia. Whilst Panama’s champions perform for 4,000, our champions, Chelsea, play in front of 41,000 at Stamford Bridge, and are broadcast to millions across the globe.
The man that scored the historic goal for his country Roman Torres summed up what qualification meant to his team and country, saying they are: “Extremely happy, just thankful to god for the things that happened and we are really happy to be going to the world cup.
“Pure happiness, the Panamanians are so blessed with what happened, it’s something we’ve been working to for some time. I can’t say it enough, the stadium was just in pure happiness and euphoria over what happened. It was a historic moment for our country.”
A photo circulated that showed Torres, a pitch-invader and a police officer embracing one another following the full time whistle. The sheer delight inside the stadium was sensational, says Torres:
“When the moment arrived, if the fans are going to come, they are going to come. The Panamanians felt the moment, they are part of the moment. What are you going to do? You can’t stop them entering the field in such a moment, not only for the people of Panama City and Panama, but for the national team also. You can’t stop them coming and celebrating such a historic moment.”
Fifa’s 56th ranked team are managed by Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez. El Bolillo (The Truncheon) managed Ecuador side to their first World Cup in 2002, four years after his Colombian side bowed out of the ’98 finals in the group stages. In an interview with Fox Sports, El Bolillo said that his team are going to face powerhouses like Belgium and England, before adding: “We’re going to face these tough guys, and they’re going to be happy about it.”
In football though, as England fans know all too well, the underdogs often spring up surprises.
The country’s all-time leading scorer Blas Perez has netted 43 goals for Los Canaleros. Perez has enjoyed successful spells in Uruguay, Colombia, America and Mexico, with brief stints in Spain and the UAE. The cult-hero figure celebrated reaching the world cup with a tweet dedicated to his countrymen, which read: “Our greatest satisfaction was to fulfil the dream of a nation. See you in Russia my people!”
The common consensus surrounding Panamanian football and the successes of the national team seem to be one of togetherness and camaraderie, with the people of the nation being just as pivotal and important as the eleven on the field.
Two Panamanian commentators were seen screaming, crying and jumping into each other’s arms as the full time whistle went against Costa Rica. Their neighbours had inflicted Panama’s heaviest ever defeat in 1938, 11-0, so victory for Panama over their rivals made qualification even sweeter.
With an average income of $13,654, Panamanian’s are looking at an estimated cost of €3,228 ($3,969) for the trip to Russia according to The World Game. But for a nation who are finally starting to get behind the beautiful game, thousands of supporters are expected to make the journey.
Panama’s motto of ‘For the Benefit of the World’ seems more apt than ever now as the tiny nation gets to show itself off on the biggest stage of all. Let’s hope that the nation, known by many for US military intervention and a de facto dictator, can change the minds of many and help contribute to what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting tournaments to date.