MIAMI, Florida – It was October 2013 and the Panamanian National Team had just suffered the most devastating loss in their history.
Mere minutes from advancing to the Intercontinental Playoff against New Zealand for a ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Panama saw a 2-1 lead against the United States on the final matchday of the final round of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying go up in flames, ending in a 3-2 defeat at Panama City’s Rommel Fernandez Stadium.
In the weeks and months after, it would have been easy for the veterans of the Panamanian squad to have thrown in the towel; but instead, there emerged an even more motivated Panama that four years later would earn the achievement of a lifetime by qualifying for Panama’s first ever World Cup.
“It was a very hard moment. I had never seen anywhere in football in which a team leads with two or three minutes left and then loses in that time. It was a tough moment for us, but we were strong and we prepared ourselves for what followed and tried to get back to the same point where we had been for Brazil 2014 and keep that same hope for Russia 2018,” said Panama FW Gabriel Torres in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
“The first months were very difficult. Nobody wanted to talk about it at first, but finally we talked and we set out to work even hard for Russia 2018. The lesson was that we had to be more united than ever as a team to be able to reach the objective, so I think it helped fortify us more as a group,” added Torres.
The man behind Panama’s historical achievement was Colombian manager Hernan Dario
“Bolillo” Gomez, who never wavered in his belief that Torres and his Panama teammates could get the job done.
“He is a very experienced manager and knows how to select players, plus we came in with a base of players from the previous team that was maintained, and he basically kept the same group intact during all of qualifying. He knew how to manage well. The team was always happy to go to the national team any time there was a camp, we always stuck together and like Bolillo said, ‘I’m fine if we lose all the other games, just as long as we get to the World Cup,’” said Torres.
The situation heading into the final matchday of the final round of Concacaf WCQ for Russia 2018 was eerily similar to Brazil 2014. Panama were once again at home, this time against Costa Rica. The math was simple: If the U.S. lose to Trinidad and Tobago and Panama beat Costa Rica, Panama go to the World Cup.
“Costa Rica had tied Honduras and qualified for the World Cup, which was good for us, so our only thought was winning the game and then see how the other results go. Our mindset was to beat Costa Rica no matter what. The match started and we were so motivated, so anxious. Costa Rica scores, but we heard from the fans that Trinidad and Tobago scored so that motivated us more. The first goal came, and then we got the result that qualified us directly for the World Cup,” said Torres
With the U.S. headed toward defeat in Trinidad and Tobago, the decisive goal came in the 88’ off the right boot of Roman Torres. What then followed was a dramatic conclusion that will forever live in Panama lore.
“We all ran toward [Roman] and when we got to him, he said, ‘We’re in the playoff!’ But then [Felipe] Baloy gets there and he says, ‘No, we’re qualifying directly!’ Roman heard that and started to run around the stadium, so it was an incredible moment for Panama to experience.
“It was crazy from the moment that Roman scores in the 88th minute until the 94th minute, the ball was only played once. An elderly woman came onto the field, we were all on the touchline waiting for the referee to blow the final whistle to celebrate, knowing that the game in Trinidad and Tobago game was over and that we were going to the World Cup. The referee blows the final whistle, people came on the field… It was crazy and wonderful,” said Torres.
For Panama, qualifying for Russia 2018 was well worth the wait after the heartbreak of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Now, as Concacaf WCQ is set to re-start, Torres believes that the new crop of Panama players can follow in the footsteps of legends like FW Blas Perez, DF Felipe Baloy and GK Jaime Penedo and others and help the Canaleros reach Qatar 2022.
“The new generation has brought a lot of hope for the country, they are going to Europe and playing at another level. That is important for us as a national team to have those players at a European level. I think what has been hard is the rebuilding of a national team. When those veteran players left the National Team, they left a hole and so now we are rebuilding to fill that hole. It’s not easy to take the place of those players, so hopefully the new coach [Thomas Christiansen] has the capacity to arm a strong national team and form a team that can compete at a high level within Concacaf,” concluded Torres.