Panama emerged as one of the big winners on Matchday 1 in Round 4 of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Though handed a tough start in Group B with an away day in Jamaica, Los Canaleros emerged triumphant to take a big step towards the final six-team phase.
Drawn in a daunting section with the Reggae Boyz, Costa Rica and Haiti, La Roja now lie top of the group following their unexpected, yet welcome, 2-0 win in Kingston and are in good heart ahead of Tuesday’s home game with Los Ticos, as Canalero captain Felipe Baloy told FIFA.com.
A timely triumph
Panama went into the game in the Jamaican capital having gone 12 matches without a win, a sequence that included noteworthy draws with USA and Ecuador and narrow defeats to Mexico and Uruguay.
“We were very aware of that record,” said Baloy, heaving a sigh of relief. “We’ve been playing well but without getting the results. Before the game we spoke about the need to be more assertive but to also use our heads at the same time. And that’s what we did. We were in the right frame of mind for a tough match, we bided our time and we came away the win.”
Two years ago, Panama came agonisingly close to a place at Brazil 2014, with a last-minute defeat to USA denying them the opportunity to contest the intercontinental play-off against New Zealand, a painful setback that Baloy believes changed mindsets in the Roja set-up.
“Getting knocked out like that hurt so much that it made us realise that effort and commitment was not enough in itself,” he explained. “The players have to be very mindful of what’s at stake, and we have to look after ourselves and prepare properly. At the same time, we also have to build a connection with the fans and the media and make the nation come together as one. We’re going to make the World Cup, but it’s a long road and we need to be aware of that.”
The moment of truth
The next test of Panamanian resolve will come against regional heavyweights Costa Rica, who also got their group campaign off to a positive start with victory over Haiti. Looking ahead to Tuesday’s match in Panama City, a game the 34-year-old defender sees as a possible springboard for his team, he said: “We respect them and we know what they’ve achieved, but we’re going into the game in the best way possible, with our feet on the ground and a real desire to win. It’s a chance for us to show we mean business.”
The current preliminaries are a golden opportunity for Panama to build on the improvement they have made over the last decade and reach the big stage at last. While acknowledging that they have the maturity to achieve just that, the skipper knows that winning games also brings with it greater responsibility.
“The pressure is not like it was before,” he said. “The fans supported us and would be happy as long as we competed. But now they want us to win regardless of who we’re playing. There was quite a bit of uncertainty before the Jamaica game, but the win gave the fans a lift and they’re confident now that we can deliver on Tuesday.”
Baloy has won 81 caps since embarking on his international career in 2001, which makes him better qualified than most to assess the task facing Panama. So what message will he have for his team-mates ahead of the Costa Rica match?
“We need to be aware of what’s at stake,” came the answer. “We need to go out there and give it our all. When somebody makes a mistake or gets something right, we have to support each other. When something doesn’t work out, we have to support each other even more. We’re representing a country, our people, and we’re wearing a beautiful jersey. We shouldn’t forget that.”
The skipper has a dream he shares with millions of his compatriots: “I’m at an age now where I don’t know if I’ll make the World Cup or even the end of the qualifiers,” he laughed. “What I will keep doing is giving my all and working twice as hard to help Panama reach that objective. If we do get to Russia and I end up making the trip, it would be a fantastic way to finish my career. It would be the ultimate.”