There was no question Panama was stoked for the 2018 World Cup, which just ended in Russia.
Fans traveled to support the team and they filled stadiums in Sochi, Nizhny Novgorod and Saransk. Just about every sports bar and gathering environment from La Palma and Panama City to David and Bocas del Toro had the games blaring from every possible television as fans embraced the excitement and drank libations.
But earlier, when the national team was announced, the 23 players who completed the final roster left some of us scratching our heads and mumbling “who?” When a country qualifies for the World Cup they are able to select members from various teams world-wide, who meet the FIFA rules for eligibility of that particular nation. So the final Panamanian team was not necessarily made up of players who had been competing in Panama, but of people who had a “national connection” to Panama.
Today There Are Many Options For Representation
According to FIFA you can choose what country you represent in the World Cup, but you must meet certain criteria. Some of which include being born in the country or in a territory of that country, representing the country of your biological parents or grandparents or if you have lived continuously for at least five years after the age of 18 years. Once you declare your residency, on a senior level, you generally have to stick with that country. It’s not always easy, because today there are many athletes who have multiple national allegiances.
The final Panamanian National Team was filled with players who earned their living from clubs outside Panama including ones in New York, San Jose, Seattle, Houston, Spain, Chile, Peru Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Belgium, Slovenia, Romanian and Costa Rica.
A Sleight Of Hand?
But, if you are thinking this was some sleight of hand to bolster Panama’s competitive edge in Russia, think again. Panama was one of nine teams of 32 total who fielded no foreign-born players. The international roster of players was more an out growth of not having enough professional opportunities within Panama, as opposed to whether or not they were Panamanian.
Of the 23 team members playing for Morocco, 17 of their players were not born in Morocco. Eight were born in France, five in the Netherlands, two in Spain and one each in Belgium and Canada. The players were all of Moroccan descent, but they had mainly played for European clubs from their earliest soccer education.
Migration Patterns Changing Sport
The new world stage is rapidly changing and much of that is due to migration patterns. Never before have there been so many people moving from one nation to another. On France’s 23-man roster at this year’s Cup, 17 are the sons of first-generation immigrants. Other successful European squads are also stacked with talent from sons of immigrants or recent migrants themselves, notably Switzerland and Belgium.
Panama learned a great deal about how to better compete on the world stage and part of that was how the final roster should be filled. Every team would want to have a Cristiano Ronaldo play for them, but he played, not for Spain, where he is a national hero and star of the Real Madrid team, but for Portugal, the country where he was born. When World Cup 2022 rolls around, will there be other talented players who were born in Panama? Or someone whose mother or grandfather was Panamanian?
Panama has long been known for turning out gifted athletes, mainly in baseball. Because of limited local opportunities on the biggest stages, most of those exceptional talents were forced to go to other countries to play and train. After participating in this World Cup, there will be more opportunities for these athletes to stay home and play every day with national pride.
Panamanian soccer players are not the only athletes eager to represent this country. There were 55 athletes on the Panamanian team at the XI South American Games recently held in Bolivia and a number of them were not born in Panama. Carolena Carstens was born in the United States, but has dual citizenship because her mother is Panamanian. She is a gifted taekwondo athlete and was the flag bearer for Panama in both the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics in Rio and the opening ceremonies of the games in Bolivia.
As Panama continues to grow and develop as a first world nation, more opportunities will exist for athletes. There will be more money for training and more events to showcase that Panama is so much more than a canal!