We had been in the stadium for only five minutes when the beer began to fly. Panama’s national soccer team had just scored in the opening minute, and, keeping with tradition, fans threw their (still full) drinks to the sky and everyone jumped and hugged and high-fived.
One generously proportioned fan sitting in our section, in his jubilation and excitement, stumbled and crashed through an unlocked gate and onto the field (yes, we were sitting in the front row). It was Rommel Fernández Stadium at its best.
Honduras pressed for an equalizer. It was starting to look like it was only a matter of time, but then Panama slipped one through at the 70th minute. As the ball flew in, the stadium erupted again. Victory for Panama in this vital World Cup qualifier match was secured.
Since arriving in Panama (from Ireland), I have adopted the Panamanian soccer squad as my second team. In the beginning, I was simply being socially shrewd. Most of my new friends were Panamanian and had invited me to watch the games. Surely the clever thing to do would be to cheer when they scored and groan when they conceded.
However, my cheers soon turned genuine as there’s something terribly endearing about this currently overachieving national team and their hopeful fans. Who couldn’t have a soft spot for these underdogs?
It’s a small nation taking on countries with a much larger pool of players to choose from. Additionally, Panama isn’t even a soccer country; baseball is the national sport, a holdover from the U.S.’s influence here. This shrinks their already small potential talent pool. Relative to other countries in this part of the world, kids in Panama don’t grow up playing much soccer. I remember naively asking a friend of mine where the best Panamanian players play their club football. He responded, “Umm….we’ve a few in Mexico. Oh! One guy plays in Poland.” In contrast, I’ve seen dozens of players from Panama’s local rivals in the prestigious Spanish, English, and Italian leagues.
Panama is also lacking in big game experience. They’ve never managed to qualify for the World Cup. They have never even been close. This, however, may be the key to their recent success.
This lack of experience has created a fragile nativity among the fans and players alike. They feel like they can and should win every game. This unfounded entitlement has been essential to their ability to defy the odds.
My native Ireland has had some soccer success in the past. However, there have been so many crushing disappointments (Google search Ireland Euro Championship 2012). Irish players and fans can be negative (or realistic, depending on your perspective). Without question, this negativity has impacts the national team’s fortunes. Panama, the team and the fans, on the other hand, has been blissfully and ignorantly confident through the qualifiers so far.
But Could Panama Really Qualify For The 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
It’s never happened before, and there’s a long way to go; they still have to play seven more games. However, Panama’s dominant victory over Honduras last month has put the country in a good position…that is, first position.
For the time being, Panama is sitting pretty in first place
World Cup qualifying tournaments are broken into regional groups. Panama plays in a group with perennially Cup-qualifying teams from the United States and Mexico. So far Panama has played competitive border rival Costa Rica to a heartbreaking draw (Panama squandered a 2-0 lead, with Costa Rica’s tying goal coming in the last five minutes), another draw, 1-1, with a weak Jamaica, and, most recently, the impressive 2-0 win over Honduras. So they haven’t proven a whole lot yet. July’s game against regional powerhouse Mexico will be an important indication of how much this team has in the locker. Then four days later, on July 6, Panama will be tested against the United States in Seattle.
After the final qualifying games are played in November, the first three teams from Panama’s group will be invited to the World Cup. You have to assume that two of those spots will be taken by the United States and Mexico. The fourth place team will compete in a playoff against New Zealand for the right to play in Brazil in 2014.
If Panama were to make the cut, it would be great not only economically for the country, but also for national spirit. When Ireland first qualified for the World Cup in 1990, it created a national belief that Ireland belonged among the world’s elite in every sense…not just soccer. Some people even believe that it helped trigger the economic Celtic Tiger. This may be a bit much, but no one can deny that it changed the country for the better. This is what’s at stake for Panama.