“We just need to make that small 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.”
Those words belong to Panama forward Luis Tejada, who was in conversation with FIFA.com following a painful defeat to Costa Rica last November, one that prevented the Panamanians from taking to the top of Group B in the fourth round of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
The time to come and make that “step” is nearly upon Los Canaleros, who face Jamaica on 2 September knowing that a win will take them through to the hexagonal, the final six-team round that will decide which teams will go through to the next world finals. Four days later will come their closing match of the group against the Costa Ricans.
The man in charge of Panama’s qualification campaign is the Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez, who knows a thing or two about big games and who spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about his side, which has become battle-hardened over the years and is determined not to trip up again.
A change in style
When Gomez took on the Panama job, the national team had just suffered one of the most traumatic experiences of its history: an agonising 3-2 defeat to USA in the final qualifier for Brazil 2014. The Panamanians needed to win that game to book a place in the intercontinental play-off, an objective they looked to be on the way to achieving when they led 2-1 with just seven minutes remaining. Two American goals in injury time ended their dreams, however.
Nicknamed El Bolillo, Gomez had the job of rebuilding a side short on morale after that deflating reverse. Many hard months of work later, the Panamanians are enjoying good times again, the happiest of them coming when they defeated Jamaica in Kingston to take move three points clear of the Reggae Boyz ahead of the return meeting.
“Panama have got a strong base and a lot of talent,” said the Colombian, assessing his side’s development. “What we’ve tried to do is not be as direct as in the past, but to win the ball back quickly and then bide our time and look for space. That patient approach has helped us become more solid and stop the opposition from hitting us on the counter.”
The upcoming meeting with the Jamaicans will be an acid test for Gomez’s two-year tenure. Looking ahead to the match, he said: “We know Jamaica. The game in Kingston was really tough, even though we won, and we know that there’s nothing between teams in the CONCACAF Zone. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ve put a lot of work in and we’re ready to impose ourselves on our opponents.”
Gomez’s faith in his team is based on facts: “The players have been able to take those steps forward. They’ve played in Gold Cup finals and they’ve qualified before for Hexagonales. All that’s been missing is a place at the World Cup. They’ve done everything else. We’re ahead in the table, in a good position, and my players have been here before and done it.”
The 60-year-old has other reasons to be optimistic, as he explained: “This is a very mature team. We’ve got four or five players who’ve picked up a lot of experience in the game, and a few others who aren’t quite as experienced but who really know their way around. That’s why I’m not concerned. We’ve got players with ability.”
Then there is Gomez’ own experience of the big occasion. It was the Colombian who guided Ecuador to their first world finals, at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, masterminding their qualification ahead of Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in a campaign that featured a historic first win over A Seleção.
The secret of his success is relatively simple: “I’m not going to make it up as I go along or do fancy new things on a computer. We’re going to do what we know. Nothing more. For me, football is all about what you do on the pitch, and that’s what we want to happen when the match comes around. We know we can make that step.”