Praise and joy as Panama makes Copa history

Panama players (pictured) celebrate after scoring against Bolivia in a Copa America Centenario match on June 6, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, USA. (Photo: Mexsport)

ORLANDO, Florida -- After scoring an 87th-minute winner to lead Panama to a 2-1 victory over Bolivia in Group D of the Copa America Centenario on Monday, Blas Perez gave all the credit to those teammates who made it happen.

Both were second-half substitutions, with Luis Tejada and Abdiel Arroyo entering in the 56th and 74th minutes, respectively.  The two combined down the right wing to set up Perez’s finish, one that sealed victory in Panama’s first-ever Copa America match.

“Luis is very, very smart on the field,” said Perez, who by scoring his 40th and 41st international goals moved within one of Tejada for the nation’s all-time lead.  “Luis has the ball, he passes for Arroyo, and Arroyo gave it to me.  It’s easy in the box for me.  I was really, really happy for us.”

Perez wasn’t the only one.

As the final whistle sounded, several Panama players dropped to their knees in celebration.  Head coach Hernan Dario Gomez even admitted to getting emotional.

“We had the desire to win,” the 60-year-old Colombian said.  “We had the desire of satisfying the country.  I felt like crying. Everybody was hugging each other.  We were feeling the country.”

Gomez also praised the 35-year-old Perez, a lively competitor throughout a 90-minute shift, even though he has played mostly off the subs bench for the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS this season: “Blas Perez is a man that represents a lot of things.  Inside the field and outside the field he’s a very positive leader.  He’s a man who has had triumphant moments.  He’s been sent to the heavens and the hells, and he’s never given up.”

After defeating Bolivia, Panama will face FIFA World No. 1 Argentina on Friday, having a chance to grab sole possession of the top spot in Group D.  Then comes a match against defending Copa America champions Chile in the group finale.

Those tough games ahead give Monday’s victory some meaning beyond just history, said goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. 

“If we want to do something in this group, against Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, we had to start the competition with a win,” he expressed.  “This (moment) is very proud for us. It’s an inspiration for the next game.”