Panama primed for global debut after historic triumph
There is no doubt that the 2017 CONCACAF Beach Soccer Championship will live long in the memories of Panamanian fans. And with good reason, as their country saw off the challenge from formidable regional rivals such as Mexico, El Salvador and USA to lift the trophy at the competition – held in Nassau, the Bahamas, from 20 to 26 February – and qualify for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup for the first time.
El Tri, previously the dominant force on the sand in the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone, were on the receiving end of the upset in the final and had to settle for second place. However, they will join Los Canaleros in returning to the beautiful beaches of Nassau for the global extravaganza in a couple of months' time, when both teams will be hoping to make waves.
FIFA.com rounds up the key events from six days of pulsating action in the Bahamas.
First steps Panama made a low-key start on their path to glory. While their organisation and tactical discipline, which would pay dividends throughout, were in evidence right from the outset of the group stage, they took a while to fully click into gear. Two of their three Group D games were decided on penalties and while they overcame Costa Rica 2-1 from the spot (1-1 aet), they lost by the same scoreline in the shoot-out against eventual group winners El Salvador (4-4 aet).
Mexico, for their part, ran away with Group B, claiming nine points from a possible nine in imperious fashion. Ramon Maldonado led the charge for a team who showed themselves to have a wealth of talent, as well as a burning desire to defend their title.
A special mention goes to the Bahamas, the hosts of this preliminary competition and of the upcoming global extravaganza. They also topped their section – Group A – with a clean sweep of victories. Their star man was skilful forward Lesly St. Fleur, whose goals gave the home fans plenty to celebrate and proved crucial in his side's progress to the quarter-finals.
Lastly, USA also cruised through with a perfect record, scoring 20 times and conceding just four to brush aside the other Group C contenders en route to the knockout stage.
The home straight None other than the Stars and Stripes, two-time CONCACAF champions, awaited Panama in the last eight, but La Marea Roja were unfazed by their opponents' pedigree and prevailed 6-4 to move to within a win of World Cup qualification. The semi-finals brought another test in the shape of El Salvador again, who had thrashed Jamaica 5-0 to reach the last four. A thrilling, end-to-end encounter finished 2-2 after extra time, so penalties were again required to separate the sides. On this occasion Panamanian goalkeeper Jose Victoria was the hero, saving twice in the shoot-out to secure a berth at Bahamas 2017 for his trailblazing team.
Mexico, meanwhile, breezed past Trinidad and Tobago 5-1 in the quarters and showcased their strength at both ends of the pitch again in the semis, scoring three times themselves and not allowing Guadeloupe to gain a foothold by pulling any goals back. That 3-0 victory booked El Tri's ticket to the World Cup and gave them the chance to retain their continental crown.
However, the holders struggled to break down Panama in the final. Setting their stall out to stifle their opponents' firepower, Los Canaleros were content to sit back and let Mexico boss possession, which they largely did, but to little effect. As the Mexicans poured forward, the Panamanians were able to exploit the gaps presented to them. They ultimately recorded a convincing 4-2 triumph to capture the trophy and set themselves up in style for their global debut on the sand at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Bahamas 2017, to be contested in Nassau from 27 April to 7 May.
Final standings *1.* *Panama**
3. El Salvador
7. Trinidad and Tobago
* Qualified for Bahamas 2017
Player of the tournament Alfonso Maquensi (Panama)
Golden Glove Diego Villasenor (Mexico)
Top scorers Ramon Maldonado (Mexico) and Marlon Meza – 12 goals