It is not every day that a captain gets to lead by example in a continental semi-final and help his country secure a historic victory over the tournament favourites.
Back in July, when Panamanian forward Blas Perez floated in a corner from the left in the 60th minute in Arlington, it appeared as if Mexican defender Joel Huiqui would be able to clear the ball in routine fashion.
That was not counting on the speed and anticipation of Panama skipper Roman Torres, however, who appeared out of nowhere to clinch a 2-1 success and propel his side into the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup final.
“I felt so happy,” admitted the 27-year-old defender in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “Very few people had predicted that Panama would get to the final, but after a massive effort, we were able to obtain a hugely important result." The triumph provided confirmation that Los Canaleros’ last-four berth was the product of serious hard work rather than pure luck.
“It meant a lot to us. We had convinced ourselves that we could be champions, but in the final against the USA it just wasn’t our day. We knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that they were a good team and tactically very sound. Despite how it turned out, I’m pleased, because the team gave everything they had and showed that they were capable of making it to the final.”
The competition not only saw the Panamanians return to a senior CONCACAF final and record historic victories over El Tri, but also provided them with a real mental boost as they attempt to book a ticket for the FIFA World Cup™ for the very first time.
“The Gold Cup is the best thing that could have happened to us,” said the centre-back, who plays for Bogota-based Millonarios in Colombia. “Reaching the final in the way that we did, coming together as a team, keeping our concentration – all these things have set us up brilliantly for the World Cup qualifiers that lie ahead.”
There is no time to celebrate their recent progress, as on 10 September Panama will lock horns with Honduras in the final hexagonal round of qualifying for Brazil 2014. Los Catrachos, who have chalked up seven points, are sitting in fourth position, which would be enough for a slot in the Intercontinental Play-Off against New Zealand. Currently a point behind in the standings, La Marea Roja would put real pressure on the Hondurans in the event of a win in Tegucigalpa.
“Honduras have been playing well,” he said charitably. “It will be a tough game against very tricky opponents. But we’ve been performing well too. We’re a focused, compact unit that doesn’t give up. We’re hopeful of putting in a good showing and securing a positive result.”
Thus far, Julio Dely Valdes’ charges have relied on a strong work ethic and total application, leaving nothing to chance and making gradual progress. Consequently, Torres has placed particular emphasis on their upcoming home match with Jamaica.
“We know that the Jamaicans are bottom of the table,” said the former Atletico Junior player. "Despite that, they’re a dangerous team that we'll have to keep a careful eye on. We’ll have to be fully concentrated and well-organised, seize any chances that come our way and just keep doing what we’ve been doing."
“We’ve prepared well. We know that we’ll need to communicate effectively at the back to avoid the types of mistakes that you just can’t afford to make at this stage of qualifying. We have no room for error, be it physical or mental,” he added.
With these crucial games just around the corner, September and October are shaping up to be decisive months for teams wishing to board the plane to Brazil next year. “We want to be at the World Cup,” he said.
“But to do so, we must stay focused. We represent the dreams of the Panamanian people. We’ll adopt the same low-profile approach we had during the Gold Cup. Making it to Brazil would be a long-held dream come true for me and a historic achievement for our country.”