The manner in which USA and Panama checked into Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final is a carbon copy of their semi-final showings in the 2005 competition. Just as they did eight years ago, the Americans overcame Honduras thanks in part to fine performances from DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, while Panama reprised their last-four heroics of USA 2005 by beating a side widely tipped to reach the final, Los Canaleros doing to Mexico on Wednesday what they had done to Colombia all those years ago.
“I remember it as if it were yesterday,” 31-year-old Panama keeper Jaime Penedo told FIFA.com as he recalled the final they lost to the Stars and Stripes on penalties back in 2005. “It was great to reach a final but a shame that things didn’t work out for us.”
That runners-up spot was a landmark for Panama, capping as it did a turnaround in their fortunes, a process that began with the appointment of the Colombian Jose Eugenio Hernandez as the national team coach.
First capped in 2003, Penedo has played an integral part in Panama’s emergence over these last few years and is appreciative of Hernandez’s role: “Cheché was our coach in that competition and he managed to change our mindset. It was he who made Panamanian players believe they could win.
“Other coaches came in after him and then the Dely Valdes brothers arrived. They’re two fantastic coaches who are doing a great job. They’ve instilled a lot of discipline and focus in the side, both on and off the pitch, and they’ve also made us a very tightly knit unit that is a real team in its approach to the game. That’s one of the keys to the success we’ve been having lately.”
Eight years on from their last final appearance, Panama have been getting themselves noticed again, setting up another tilt at the regional title.
“We were really excited heading into the competition and dreaming of lifting the trophy,” said Penedo. “But it’s not until you win your first game, which in our case was against Mexico – who are always a prized scalp – that you realise what’s going on and that you have a chance of making that dream come true. We’ve had some very tough games but thanks to God things have been working out for us.”
As fate would have it, the Panamanians have been given the chance to avenge their shootout defeat to the Americans eight years ago and win the title for the first time.
“Is there any reason why we can’t do it?” said the Canalero custodian, posing a rhetorical question. “We know USA have come back well in the World Cup qualifying competition and that they’ve been getting some very important results in the last few months and playing very well, but big finals don’t come along every day and when you get to play in one you have to give it your best shot. I feel relaxed because I know the team’s going to come up with the right response.”
Warming to his theme, he added: “Winning this tournament would mean a lot to Panama. We’re still finding our way in the game and it’s not easy to reach finals. We only play in two tournaments: the Copa Centroamericana (formerly the UNCAF Nations Cup) and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and it would be absolutely fantastic to win this title.”
Should they lift the trophy on Sunday, it would represent a timely morale boost ahead of the decisive phase of the qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, which reaches its conclusion this coming September and October.
“Up to now this has been a pretty positive experience that’s standing us in good stead for the qualifiers,” continued Penedo, “What we’ve achieved here is a shot in the arm for us. We picked up just one point out of nine in our last three qualifying matches and one of our aims coming into the Gold Cup was to put in a good performance and get some momentum going. In that respect, this has done us a power of good.”
All that remains for the Panamanians to do now is to keep the winning run going. Penedo is confident they can do just that and go on to reach the world finals for the first time: “We look at the table and we know that we’re several points away from top spot but not from second or third. If we have a good September, we can get right back in the race.
“It’s the dream of an entire nation. The whole of Panama is dreaming of seeing the team at the World Cup and to make it there would bring a real sense of fulfilment to us on a personal level and to the rest of our people.”