My friend, at the World Cup, called shortly after Panama lost their opening game 3-0 to Belgium.
She wasn’t torn up about the loss because the Belgians are one of the top ranked teams in the world. Instead, she was elated that the international press covering the game kept commenting on how many Panamanians were in the stands.
“The crowd was heavily Panamanian,” she said. “And there were about 60,000 seats. Maybe the Belgians thought this would be an easy game so they would wait until later in the tournament to attend, but they were completely outnumbered.”
They Were Everywhere!
“I was even a little surprised as I was coming into Fisht Stadium,” she admitted. “Everywhere I turned, there were flags and shirts and plenty of Panamanian scarves waving in the afternoon sun. They had come hours before the game to party and represent. You’d see clumps of them dotting the area between the stadium and the Black Sea where temporary food stands were filled with people sporting Panama shirts. The atmosphere was electric!
“The Panamanians were very well dressed, even in sporting clothes. They spoke English very well and had fun posing for photos with each other and some of the stadium workers. It was just a wonderful afternoon.”
“Then, I heard a guy from the European press say, ‘I thought they would be selling tickets at a discount to the Russians, because there would be so many empty seats.’ said my friend with a tone of irritation. “I let that one pass, gave him a look and moved on,” she explained.
“’It’s hard to tell,’ I heard another say and I started to listen closer. “Tell what?” I asked myself and then I realized they were referring to the fact the basic colors for Panama were the same colors for Russia and they were assuming they were making a mistake about the fans and assuming they were Russians filling empty seats.”
I was beginning to enjoy the suspense of my friend’s conversation and laughed. “So what turned out to be the deal?”
Why Are The Panamanians Here?
“I asked a couple of them in the press corps about why they thought Panamanians wouldn’t be here to support their team. After all, we called a national holiday when we won the right to be in the World Cup.”
“What did you ask?” I questioned, knowing how strong my friend can be if provoked.
“I asked them what they knew about Panama,” she replied. “Like why wouldn’t the fans be here at this historic game?”
She went on to say the men writing international news stories replied something about Panama having a canal which the French and Americans had dug and that one had a grandmother who had a mola, so he knew about the Kuna Indians.
“I started to laugh, because I knew these men would have been in for a lesson!”
That Was 1914!
“So I had a little sit down with them.” said my friend. “I explained that though the Americans may have finished the canal in 1914, but we had just doubled it and there was so much more to Panama than the canal. I was pretty incensed,” she continued. “I explained how Panama City was the de facto capital of Central America and that over 130 international companies had offices in Costa del Este alone. Also, I mentioned that the economy in Panama was one of the fastest growing in the world.”
She continued almost too fast to understand. “One guy actually asked how the Panamanians would have gotten to Russia. I told him those direct international flights to New York, Madrid, Geneva and Frankfurt would have been enough for the fans to get out of Panama and on their way to other parts of the globe,” she said. “I actually started to feel sorry for the guys. They really didn’t know. I could see the surprise on their faces and then one asked if those international flights were just for the World Cup.”
I looked at him and said “Every week those flights go out whether we are in the World Cup or not! How do you think all those international business people get around!”
A Panamanian Middle Class?
My friend explained that one of them asked if there was a middle class in Panama. From what I could gather, she started going a little lighter on them because they really didn’t know the Panama of today. She began to take pleasure in telling them about how “first world” the entire country was rapidly becoming. That Panama was safe and beautiful and there were plenty of locals who could afford to go to Sochi for the game.
There were very few people in Panama that didn’t stop, in some way, to watch the game against the powerful Belgians—either in a local bar, at home, or in the stands at Fisht Stadium. The people of Panama celebrated and it was a marvelous opportunity for the world to see what Panama is rapidly becoming.
The First, But Not The Last!
It may have been the first time Panama participated in the World Cup, but it will not be the last. My friend was very pleased with how the Panamanians had played.
“We played a very respectable game. The Los Canaleros have no reason to hang their heads. Panama frustrated the Belgians for the first 55 minutes of the game, but it was very humid in Sochi and it looked as though they got a little tired. The yellow cards started to stack up because Panama was fighting so hard.” she continued. “I think the team learned a lot during this initial match-up. I also think they will be a bit more calm now that they have this first game out of the way! We’ll be more prepared when Panama goes against England on June 24.”
“I listened to Belgium’s coach, Roberto Martinez, at the Press Conference immediately following the game and he was very complimentary of Panama’s play. He said he was delighted with the win against Panama. After all, Mexico defeated Germany earlier and the other first-timer, Iceland, worked to a draw in their first game against Argentina,” she said seriously. “He also noted he had worried during the game about injuries because Panama is such a physical team. You want to keep them a little worried!”
She also said she was very impressed that the Belgium coach did not use the earphones during the press conference immediately following the game. “Just about everyone uses the headphones that automatically translates the questions and answers into whatever language is desired, she explained. He had no trouble in English, Spanish, French and he answered in depth and with insight!”
There was another thing my friend observed and that was how well the Panamanian press conducted their interviews. “They were front and center, the first ones to be called on and their questions were thoughtful and in-depth. Every Panamanian should be proud. I know I am and I’m just waiting for England in a few days. Panama is here to stay!”