MIAMI, Florida – The date was June 18, 2018 and the setting was Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia.
For the first time ever, the Panamanian National Anthem was being played as Panama was set to take part in their first ever FIFA World Cup match against Belgium.
For GK Jaime Penedo and FW Blas Perez, it was a journey 28 years in the making that they had forged together, beginning with their first steps into football.
“I love Jaime very much and I have a great friendship with him. He’s like family to me,” said Perez in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
“I played against Jaime when I was nine years old. He played in Estudiantes de Panama and I played for Dynamo de San Miguelito, and I got to score goals on him. We had faced each other a lot and when we got to the U15 level, they said to me that they wanted to have me in Jaime’s team and I liked the idea, so I went and from there we started to play together. Later we became teammates at Arabe Unido and won three straight championships. We went our ways on an international level, but the friendship I have with Jaime is still intact today,” added Perez.
As their club careers would take twists and turns, the National Team began to consistently enjoy the fruits of Penedo and Perez’s labor, in addition to a crop of other veteran players like Luis Tejada, Gabriel Gomez, Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy. That group would become known as Panama’s golden generation, but before they accomplished the history-making feat of qualifying for Panama’s first World Cup, they had to experience a lot of heartache together.
“Everyone here in Panama refers to it as the golden generation, but also for us players it’s the group that suffered the most through different qualifying cycles, in giving everything to try to reach a World Cup. We were a privileged group of five or six players that fought so hard and were blessed in that aspect. In the end, we were able to get to the World Cup and etch our name into history. As a footballer, that fulfills me because you always want to leave a legacy and we were the first to qualify for a World Cup. I hope there are many more to come,” said Perez.
One of those heartbreaks was a 3-2 loss to the United States on the final matchday of the final round of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014 that knocked Panama out of the Intercontinental Playoff with New Zealand.
Yet instead of throwing in the towel, Penedo and his teammates doubled down on the workload to get ready for the next cycle.
“Qualifying for Brazil 2014 was very dramatic for what we went through in those final minutes. Me personally I looked for the reasons why and what I could do to improve,” said Penedo in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
“That’s what I focused on since I knew my last chance was the next one and I didn’t know if it would come because there is so much time in between cycles. I dedicated myself to working based on that. In the end, it was a historical end to the story. It was a huge joy for the fans,” added Penedo.
Things could not have fallen better into place for Panama than they did in order to secure their place at Russia 2018. The Canaleros needed to defeat Costa Rica at home and then hope that Trinidad and Tobago would hand the United States a loss. The Soca Warriors did their part, and then Panama did theirs when Roman Torres scored in the 88’ to give Panama a 2-1 lead against the Ticos.
Minutes later when the final whistle sounded, there was a joy felt inside Panama’s Estadio Rommel Fernandez that had never been experienced.
“On the final whistle, we felt like we had given joy to the people. They needed it at that moment because Panama was going through a tough economic moment, but on that night, every Panamanian forgot their problems. Later you heard stories from people, people who are older who said that they could now die in peace because Panama was in a World Cup. So many people said those types of things and one is left with a sense of satisfaction and happiness for that collective achievement and on an individual level, because I think the diploma for any professional player is to play a World Cup,” said Perez.
Eight months later in Sochi, the joy experienced by Panama after the final whistle against Costa Rica remained in the hearts and souls of every Panama player as they lined up to sing their anthem before taking on Belgium.
For both Penedo and Perez, the opportunity to suit up together for Panama in a World Cup is a memory that will forever be cherished.
“At the World Cup, there is a level of competition at which it forces you to perform. They give you a key and you enter into a different scenario. The teams are so prepared to face the World Cup and I think we learned a lot from that. It was a hugely emotional experience for us,” said Penedo.
“There were so many emotions. It was my father’s dream to see me play in a World Cup and sadly he didn’t see it, but I know that he would have been proud that his son was in a World Cup and that our name was in a World Cup. There were so many tears because nobody expected it,” concluded Perez.