Panama go into their quarter-final on Saturday against hosts and holders USA as massive underdogs. However, as FIFA.com found out in an exclusive chat with their England-born boss Gary Stempel, the surprise Central American champions, who were knocked out of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ last year, are relishing the opportunity to play the role of spoilers once again.
"After winning the Central American Nations Cup in January, people back in Panama have taken notice and there's greater belief in the team," said head coach Stempel, son of an English mother and a Panamanian father. "And after being bumped out of qualifying for South Africa, the Gold Cup is like our own little World Cup and our motivation is very high."
Football in Panama has historically taken a back seat to more entrenched sports like boxing, baseball and horse-racing. However, since the iconic Dely Valdez brothers led Los Canaleros to the Gold Cup final back in 2005, the nation's football has been on the up, and Stempel has been right at the heart of it. He coached the youth team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in UAE in 2003, the first time a Panamanian side participated in a world finals, before taking over the senior reins from Alexandre Guimaraes last July.
His first order of business was a shock title run in the UNCAF (Central American) Cup of Nations, overpowering such established sides as Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala. Yet even with that notch on their belt, Panama are expected to suffer against an inexperienced USA side in Philadelphia on Saturday. Having started their campaign with a loss to island sensation Guadeloupe, the Panamanians rebounded with an emotion-filled 1-1 draw against Mexico before sealing passage with a 4-0 over debutantes Nicaragua. "We had a bit of a rough start here at these finals," said Stempel. "But that was the wake-up call we needed, and against Mexico we were a much better team. We hope to keep improving with every game."
It seems to be a good time for Los Canaleros to meet the US, as coach Bob Bradley's youthful and already-experimental squad has dwindled down to 18 players with the departure of Charlie Davies and Michael Parkhurst for club duty. But Stempel knows better. "It's precisely that kind of thinking that can leave you in line for a beating," said the coach, who began his career in football as a community outreach officer with London club Millwall. "It's a young US team, we know that much, but a lot of times those young boys are the ones that have the extra motivation to show something to the manager and make a name. If we don't prepare fully, we'll be in trouble."
The match is a replay of the famous 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, which Panama lost on penalties, and the fact that it will be staged in Philadelphia gives it special meaning for the coach. "My father actually played professional baseball in this city back in the 1950s," he said with an air of pride, referring to Cookie Stempel, who was one of the first Panamanians to play in the US major leagues. "I had totally forgotten about it, but it makes it kind of special. I remember the way he used to talk about his time here and the pictures he had on his wall."
With baseball's primacy in Panama still largely unchallenged, Stempel believes football - the game of his heart - is making big inroads. "We still have no professional league, but things are happening," he said. "Our biggest advantage is that we produce natural athletes, tremendous athletes. You can see that here with guys like Felipe Baloy and Blas Perez and many of the others. Our guys are beginning to go overseas and get a taste of professional ball. And I guarantee after these finals, the scouts will come knocking again."
Still, in his soul, Stempel is every inch the youth coach, the father figure and the community outreach man. "It is gratifying to see some of the boys I coached in the under-20 team move up and progress into the professional game," he says, before changing gears. "But really, the satisfaction comes from seeing these guys, many of who are from humble backgrounds, change their lives for the better. Football's not always about trophies and medal value, sometimes it's about human value."
Still alive in their mini-World Cup, outsiders Panama will be eager to show the world that they have more than just their famous canal to offer the world. Coach Stempel and Co are well-placed to spring a surprise this Saturday, even though the coach would never admit it.