While there are still plenty of big name national teams in the mix at the 2018 World Cup, Panama is no longer among them.
Panama struggled during the three matches they played in the Group Phase against Belgium, England & Tunisia. They scored two goals with 11 goals scored against them. Despite their challenge, the Panamanians learned a great deal from their initial World Cup outing.
It’s A Very Different Level
“When the Panamanian team entered Fisht Stadium in Sochi before their first game, it was apparent they were fairly stunned,” she began telling me with a smile. “They would give a little laugh and punch a team mate with a gesture that said ‘wow’ and then pause as if they had gone maybe farther than they were allowed,” she continued. “The coach knew his team’s experience level. He had coached the Colombia and Ecuador national teams to World Cups. He made a special request to the FIFA officials to let his team on the field prior to their first game. No other team did that, but he wanted them to get the feel of such a big venue.”
She went on to explain that the Panamanian team was certainly a rags to riches story.
“The Germans play every game in similar stadiums,” she began. “They almost always go to the World Cup. Their personal autos were shipped to Russia so they would be more comfortable if they wanted to take a drive. The average salary of one of the ‘local’ clubs in Germany, Bayern Munich, is 6.75 million USD. Their highest paid player, Franck Henry Pierre Ribéry, is paid almost 13 million USD annually.” At this point she was shaking her head. “Lionel Messi, the star for Argentina, is pulling in an excess of 33 million USD annually. And, for the record, Germany went just as far as Panama did in the World Cup. They didn’t even get out of group play,” she continued.
“One of Panama’s star players, 37 year-old Blas Pérez, was making about $215,000 annually when he played for Vancouver and last year his contract wasn’t renewed. Roman Torres, captain of the Panamanian national team, plays for the Seattle Sounders and makes about $645,000 annually.”
My friend noted that it wasn’t just the salary difference, it was so much more between Panama and the other teams. “Egypt, Iceland and Iran were also at a disadvantage with talent, but not resources. They had money, a lot of money, and Panama did not!’
The Same Shoes And Shirts
“The Panama players were pretty excited Adidas was supplying all the uniforms and shoes, so at least they were equal there,” she began. “No one shipped anything special to the Panamanian team, like a car or anything, they were just happy to be practicing in such wonderful facilities,” she said.
“Panama doesn’t have the money or the support at home. We are better known for producing great baseball players. Our players come from local clubs in the United States and other countries. We don’t have one amazing stadium accommodating 45,000 fans. Not one in the entire country. Our team does not have the resources or experience, but we are just getting started,” she said.
The Best Fans
“Our fans are some of the absolute best,” she continued. “I could not believe how many Panamanians came to Russia to support the team. They were well-mannered and educated. Of course there was a lot of beer throwing and beating on anything that would make noise, but the Panamanians know how to support and I was proud to be part of the crowd.”
“All the fans were pretty respectful,” she began to explain. “The Russians simply do not speak English and they found it hard to communicate. They were a bit smug too, because it was in their home country. The Brazilians are so passionate and the Germans feel entitled. They were so stunned when they were sent home! The Spaniards are a great group. Beer-loving, singing and everyone came with face paint. The Belgians are blonde,” she laughed. “Physically and in personality. They are so very nice, but so very blonde. The Panamanians spoke English, laughed hard at themselves and believed Panama could win it all!” My friend shook her head.
“That’s how inexperienced the fans were too—Panama was not going to win much of anything other than the right to be there among the big soccer dogs. I had small hopes of doing better against Tunisia, but Belgium and England? That was a tough draw. Panama had nothing to be ashamed of!”
One of Panama’s lessons of the World Cup was that they are not really ready to play at that level.
“We need the infrastructure—the arenas, the training, equipment, the coaches and a feeder system within the local Panamanian schools. Now that we know what is out, Panama will make it happen. When they do, we’ll be back. We won’t settle for just being there, we’ll be serious about winning.”
She also said Panama was not shocked at how much more they needed to really compete, but they were shocked at what wouldn’t work on a world stage.
“The team knew they were in over their head and they came out a bit thuggish,” she said simply. “They knew they didn’t score easily and to be honest, I was a bit surprised when they made two goals. I could easily see them going the entire tournament without a goal, but you can’t bully your way to victory!”
“When they felt their only option was defense, they saw the yellow cards stack up. That’s not the way you win at the World Cup. The other coaches weren’t just worried about winning, they also didn’t want to get hurt,” she explained. “That was a bit embarrassing.”
Not An Embarrassment
“There will be some questions about doping and how the Russians disregarded many of the FIFA mandates,” she continued. “That will come after the end of the World Cup, but Panama will not be part of that discussion. Panama conducted themselves in a professional manner and they were gentlemen. They may have shown their ‘in awe’ faces, but they always had respect for the game, for the fans and for the World Cup. I personally can’t wait for the next round of competition and World Cup 2022!”