New heights for UNCAF minnows
© AFP

It has been a good year so far for two of Central America's lesser-known footballing nations. Panama picked up their first UNCAF (Central American) Nations Cup title, beating giants and three-time FIFA World Cup™ participants Costa Rica in the final, and duly blasted 33 places up in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Meanwhile, minnows Nicaragua, saw their fifth-place finish boost their standing by unprecedented 50 places in the global pecking order.

Panama, despite scoring only two goals in their four UNCAF Cup games in Honduras in late January and early February, were the ones celebrating an historic win when the dust finally settled. Wins over much-fancied Guatemala and hosts Honduras in the semi-final were enough to see the Canaleros - coached by English-born former youth coach Gary Stempel - reach the final. The unheralded Panamanians then claimed a shootout victory against the Ticos to be crowned champions of a tournament that many pundits expected to be bossed by Honduras and six-time winners Costa Rica.

The Panamanians - who were knocked out of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa qualifying by El Salvador in the preliminary rounds - have been on a generally upward trajectory since shocking the region to reach the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, where they were edged by hosts USA on penalties. They were led ably in the most recent Central American finals by veteran Ricardo Phillips, who scored the winner against Honduras, their outstanding goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Nelson Barahona and former youth standout Armando Gun.

It's an unbelievable thing for a team like Nicaragua. It's as if we're going to the World Cup!
Nicaragua head coach Otoniel Olivas.

Nicaragua for their part are a largely unknown quantity in the established order of Central American football. Never having qualified for a FIFA World Cup and with an overall history of underachievement in the region, the small tropical nation of just over five million - who have often times been on the wrong end of heavy defeats in the past - showed a great deal of poise and improvement in the 2009 Nations Cup. They drew twice in the group stages with Belize and El Salvador, giving football fans in the country cause for optimism, despite - like Panama - being out of contention for a place at the big show in South Africa in 2010.

Panama's 33-spot (169-point) move up the world ranking to a best-ever 50th sees them shoot past such established names in the world game as Colombia, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Norway. It also slots them in an impressive fourth-place in their region, ahead of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. The Nicaraguans earned the distinction of being the biggest upward movers in the latest instalment of the global rankings, moving up 50 places from 182nd to their historical best perch of 132.

Panama, as champions of the UNCAF sub-region, qualify for the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup, though the venue and date have yet to be announced. Nicaragua will also line up in their first regional showpiece after shocking Guatemala in the match for fifth-place, thus securing the final spot from Central America at the Gold Cup. The achievement is not lost in the Nicaraguan camp, either. "It's an unbelievable thing for a team like Nicaragua," said head coach Otoniel Olivas. "It's as if we're going to the World Cup!"