Panamania hits Central America
© AFP

The unlikely Panamanians rebounded from their early elimination in 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying by edging hot favourites Costa Rica in a penalty shoot-out in Sunday's 2009 UNCAF Nations Cup final. It is the first international title for any Panamanian national team.

The win in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa was sweet revenge for the loss the Canaleros suffered at Costa Rican hands in the final of the 2007 instalment of the same Central American championship. After finishing regular time in a 0-0 stalemate, the Panamanians also made amends for the heavy 3-0 loss they suffered to the Ticos in their tournament opener by hitting all five of their kicks for a 5-3 result.

Few pundits in the region tipped Panama, who have never reached the finals of a FIFA World Cup, to make much of a run in Honduras, having tumbled out of qualifying for South Africa 2010 before the final six-team ‘hexagonal' round scheduled to begin in mid-February. The feeling was only strengthened after they lost so comprehensively to the Costa Ricans in their opener. But despite being labelled underdogs, the men from the boxing-mad country snuck into second place in their group after upsetting Guatemala, earning a semi-final date with none other than rampaging favourites and hosts Honduras, where another surprise 1-0 win put Panama into the final.

Led by English-born former youth coach Gary Stempel, Panama got good service during these finals out of veteran Ricardo Phillips - who scored the winner against Honduras - outstanding goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Nelson Barahona and former youth standout Armando Gun. And after holding Rodrigo Kenton's Ticos to a goalless stalemate after 90 minutes of regular time and 30 more of extra time in the final, the famous shootout had the Panamanians celebrating one of their greatest achievements in football.

Costa Rica were playing without foreign-based stars Bryan Ruiz and Celso Borges as well a host of domestic-based standouts like Alonso Solis and Walter Centeno. But by virtue of their six previous titles, the weakened holders were still expected to make easy meat of Panama in the final. And with top scorer Andy Furtado, who scored three goals in three games, and Pablo Brenes, Costa Rica were still a strong side. Having scored seven goals and conceding only one in their three-game run-up to the final, another victory seemed a foregone conclusion.

However, it was not to be as Panama were the ones celebrating wildly and justifiably on Sunday night, collecting their first-ever international trophy despite scoring only two goals in four games in the nine-day tournament.

As champions the Panamanians qualify for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, to be played later this year in a venue yet to be announced. They will be joined by UNCAF runners-up Costa Rica, third-place Honduras, fourth-place El Salvador and fifth-place Nicaragua, who stunned Guatemala to sneak in as the final Central American participant at the regional showpiece.

No side from Central America has ever won the biennial Gold Cup since its inception in 1991, but Honduras came closest in the inaugural event when they finished runners-up to the USA. Panama's best-ever finish in the CONCACAF championship came back in 2005 where they went to the final, only to lose out on penalties to the host United States. It is considered the greatest achievement in Panama's footballing history.

The five Central American sides join up with Caribbean champions Jamaica, runners-up Grenada and Guadeloupe and regional powerhouses Mexico and the United States, who share eight of the nine CONCACAF Gold Cup crowns between them. Canada, who won the other one in 2000, will also participate in 2009.