[OP-ED]: Panama will make its World Cup debut in Russia 2018
After failing to qualify in the very last minutes four years ago, the small Centro American country will compete next summer on its first World Cup.
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It was the fall of 2013. The game went into aggregated time and the score, 2-1, had Panama qualifying for the World Cup. But things changed drastically in seconds. Two consecutive goals recorded by Team USA meant a huge comeback, leaving the Centro Americans out of the top tournament in the planet once again…
Four years later things were completely the opposite. Playing at home again the “Red Tide” -as Team Panama is known- came back from a 1-0 half-time deficit to defeat Costa Rica, 2-1, with tallies by Blas Pérez and Román Torres. The win meant the third place in the six-team tournament for the Panamanians and their first-ever World Cup bid. Ironically, the country with a population of 4 million people left the almighty United States out of the planet’s top tournament.
Russia 2018 will see Panama’s debut in a World Cup. The Centro Americans will play in a very hard Group G, in which Europeans Belgium and England are heavy favorites.
The Belgians form one of the most skillful units, the English are back at their best from as shown in a qualifying round dominated with ease. The other squad in the group is Tunisia, which will make its fourth appearance in the last six World Cups.
Despite the toughness of their group, the Panamanians face things with expectation. Success will rely on a strong defensive system established by Colombian head coach Hernán Darío Gómez and led by captain Román Torres. This style of playing allowed only 10 goals in the 10-game qualifying tournament. The Red Tide will need to improve its offensive production. In the attack veterans Luis “El Matador” Tejada and Blas Pérez, who join efforts for 85 goals and more than 200 international games, will fight for spots in the lineup with younger forwards who currently play in Europe, like Ismael Díaz (20) and Gabriel Torres.
CONCACAF countries shocked planet football four years ago, getting three teams to the round of 16 in Brazil 2014. Panama, one of the three representatives from the zone in Russia 2018, along with Mexico and Costa Rica, will try to continue the streak next summer. There is hope. But just the fact of being in the tournament should be considered as a huge reward for a group of veteran athletes that will finally play in the World Cup.