Panama’s recent upsurge is one of the most unexpected developments the game has seen in the last few decades. The Central American nation’s emergence as been made all the more surprising by the fact that football was not even the country’s most popular sport, with Canaleros fans often looking on with envy at the passion and excitement felt by their counterparts in neighbouring countries.
Times have changed, however, and Panama have slowly but surely become genuine contenders in the region, so much so that they would have qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ but for conceding two stoppage-time goals in their final qualifier at home to USA.
Such near-misses have been a painful and constant feature of Panama’s recent rise to prominence. On several occasions they have come within touching distance of glory, only to see it slip agonisingly away from them.
Beaten in their most recent qualifying match for Russia 2018, a deflating home defeat to Costa Rica, Panama are hoping to make amends in their upcoming double-header against Haiti. Discussing that challenge and more, Canaleros striker Luis Tejada spoke to FIFA.com and identified their recurring problem as a failure to take that “last little step”.
A question of focus
That defeat to arch-rivals Costa Rica came on 17 November 2015, just a few days after a fine win in Jamaica got Panama off to the best possible start in Round 4 of the CONCACAF preliminaries for Russia 2018. Another victory would have put Los Canaleros firmly on course for a place in the final six-team phase, and expectations and hopes were high ahead of the game.
Following a tight opening hour, the Panamanians were rocked by two Tico goals in the space of three minutes. Though Tejada pulled one back for the home side, it was not enough, as another golden opportunity slipped out of their hands.
“We were playing well,” recalled the forward, who plays for Peruvian club Juan Aurich, “but then we made some mistakes and lost our focus. Los Ticos made us pay too. I think Panama played well in that game. Everybody ran, got stuck in and fought hard. All we were lacking was a little bit of luck.”
Panama have come up just short time and again in recent years. Before that defeat to Costa Rica and the agony of their Brazil 2014 qualification campaign came CONCACAF Gold Cup final defeats to USA in 2005 and 2013.
Having experienced all those setbacks at first-hand, the 33-year-old Tejada is better placed than anyone to offer an explanation for them. “We just need to make that step, because sometimes we get everything right and then we go and trip up right at the end. We have to win these types of matches to change our history. And as soon as we do that, then we’ll start winning titles and qualifying for World Cups.
“We’re learning and putting things right. We’re a humble, hard-working team, and we have faith.”
There was no shortage of humility and self-criticism after the defeat to Costa Rica, with Coach Hernan Dario Gomez and his players holding their hands up in apology and looking firmly to the future.
“A lot was said and the coach told us that if we'd started that game the way we ended it, things would have turned out differently,” explained Tejada. “We were all over Costa Rica at the end of that game, and we had them pinned back in their box. We’ll be looking to see how we can improve so that something like that doesn’t happen to us again.”
Panama now have a shot at redemption, in the shape of two make-or-break meetings with Haiti in the coming days: the first of them on Friday in Port-au-Prince and the second on Tuesday at home. Victory in both games would take the Panamanians on to nine points and put them right on track for a place in the Hexagonal.
“They haven’t picked up any points yet, but they’re tough, strong and quick,” said Tejada of the Haitians. “We have to use our heads and try to keep the ball. Caribbean sides don’t like it when you dictate the pace. They prefer to play a physical game, so the key for us will be to stay patient, defend with the ball at our feet and not to be sucked into the kind if game they want to play.”
Should Panama take the six points, they will give themselves another chance to create history. And that is not all they have to look forward to in the near future. Their next engagement after Haiti is the Copa America Centenario, where they will be in the spotlight again when they take on defending champions Chile and Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
Looking ahead to that tournament with the same mix of excitement and caution, Tejada expressed his hope that Panama can take a step forward against the best in the world: “Everyone wants to be there,” he said. “They’re the occasions when you pray that you don’t get injured or fall ill, that you’re 100-percent so that you can get picked. I’d love to play those games. First up are Haiti, though. If we can come away with six points, we’ll be ready for anyone.”