The Panama national football team became the main sensation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying tournament when, for the first time in its history, overcame the qualifier in CONCACAF zone. According to the result of the qualifying tournament, Panama was able to outplay the national teams of the USA, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, and to get qualified from the third position.
For many years Panama was very far from getting into the World Cup. The qualifier final round was already a great piece of work for the Panamanians. Only after 1998, when the number of the World Cup participants increased to 32 and North and Central America increased their representation to three-four teams, the small countries of Central America received much more chances to get into the final tournament. So, the Costa Rica national football team became a regular participant of the World Cup, in 2006 the Trinidad and Tobago team got into the final round, and Honduras in 2010 and 2014. The time of Panama has come in 2018.
In the World Cup 2006 qualifier Panama, for the first time for many years, got into the qualification final round. However, the Panamanians didn’t manage to reach more – only two points in ten matches and the last position.
Next time when the Panamanians could reach the last qualifying round was 2013. In this tournament the Reds could score already eight points, but it was not enough to fight for even the fourth position. And four years later, Panama at last achieved success.
The qualifying tournament in the CONCACAF zone was held in five rounds. Panama took off from the fourth round where the teams of Haiti, Costa Rica and Jamaica became group opponents. To leave for the last fifth round the Reds should have taken one of the first two places what the Panamanians perfectly coped with, edging the Haiti and Jamaica teams by six points.
The fifth round on the finish of the tournament became a real drama. In the penultimate round Panama concedes to their direct competitor for a berth at the 2018 FIFA World Cup — the USA national football team, in parallel, Honduras gathers one point in the match with Costa Rica. The struggle of the Panamanians for a berth at the final tournament seemed to end. However, in the last round something beyond belief happened. First, the Panamanians, losing in the course of the match, were able to outplay the strong Costa Rica national football team. And the hosts scored a decisive goal two minutes before the end. Secondly, the USA national football team sensationally conceded to the group outsider Trinidad and Tobago national football team which had never won in the tournament before this match. Thirdly, the Honduras national football team won against Mexico only with the minimum score. The combination of these three events allowed Panama to be qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever.
The Panama national football team three times in the history has tried to make serious progress in the Gold Cup, the key tournament of Central and North America. All three successful performances were in the contemporary history (for last 15 years). In 2005, for the first time ever, Panama reached the Gold Cup final. And in the final Panama lost the USA only in a penalty shootout. The forward Luis Tejada who scored three goals became the team best player of that tournament. Tejada continues playing in the national team. His portfolio contains nearly 100 matches for the national team, and he, most likely, will go with his national team to Russia.
The next success of Panama in the Gold Cup is dated 2013. Again the Panama national football team managed to reach the tournament final where they again conceded to the tournament hosts – the USA national football team. Once again, a football player of the Panama team became the top scorer of the tournament. This time Gabriel Torres scored most goals.
Two years later in the tournament held again in the USA, Panama won bronze medals. It is interesting that in that championship the Panamanians had never won — they had five matches in a drawn and one defeat.
The Panama squad has no players well-known to the European football fans. Most players perform in clubs of South and Central America. The captain Gabriel Gomez has held for the national team already 138 games. Gabriel Torres is the top scorer of the national team, and he plays in FC Lausanne-Sport, Switzerland.
Panama, perhaps, is the weakest national team in the World Cup. Nevertheless, it is rid of responsibility, therefore the Panamanians, perhaps, will be able to spring a sensation like the national team of Costa Rica four years ago.