Panama defender Felipe Baloy (left) and head coach Hernan Dario Gomez (right) answer questions at a press conference on June 5, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, USA. (Photo: Mexsport)
ORLANDO, Florida -- As Panama pursues qualification for its first FIFA World Cup finals, playing in the Copa America Centenario represents a crucial step, says manager Hernan Dario Gomez.
“It’s very important because we didn’t get invited (to the Copa America Centenario), we qualified,” expressed Gomez, whose side defeated Cuba, 4-0, in a qualifying playoff on January 8.
The Canaleros will play their first-ever Copa America match against Group D rival Bolivia on Monday at Camping World Stadium.
“I feel proud, I feel nervous, I feel a joy, I feel emotional,” Gomez continued. “I’m very happy, and I have great expectation for what we are doing.”
After narrowly missing out on a 2014 World Cup berth, Panama currently sits second with seven points in Group B of the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying for Russia 2018, three points behind Costa Rica.
Gomez believes playing in a tough Copa America group that also includes Argentina – the top-ranked national team according to FIFA -- and defending champions Chile could help his team’s World Cup efforts.
“Those teams with the way that they act, they are going to be showing us how effective our work is or if it is not effective for the future,” commented the 60-year-old.
That said, such a group also creates extra motivation to get a good result against a Bolivia side that lost 4-0 to the USA in its only friendly tune-up.
“Definitely, I feel that there is pressure because if we do not get a positive result everything gets harder,” said goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. “The match against Bolivia is important for us, but it is difficult.”
At No. 56 in the FIFA World Rankings, Panama is 26 spots ahead of the Bolivians, who haven’t qualified for the World Cup since 1994. Bolivia currently is second from bottom six matches into CONMEBOL’s 10-team World Cup qualifying round robin.
Even so, Panama captain Felipe Baloy said a victory over Bolivia would give his team more confidence to face its upcoming South American foes.
“Winning for us is really going to motivate us even more,” remarked Baloy, a defender who plays for Mexico’s Atlas. “That’s the idea, to work hard and to fight and to enjoy and to win.”
Gomez insisted Bolivia should not be taken lightly.
“We’re going to face a rival who really knows how to play soccer well,” he finished. “Unfortunately, they haven’t had the good results that they have expected and that’s why a lot of people don’t value them.”