Surprise qualifiers Panama will make their World Cup debut at Russia 2018, and have been drawn in Group G to face European heavyweights Belgium and England, as well as Tunisia.
Hernan Dario Gomez
Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)
Panama qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time ever after beating Costa Rica in a shock final round of fixtures in the North American hexagonal. Panama’s late win against Los Ticos, sealed by Roman Torres’ 88th-minute strike, combined with Trinidad & Tobago’s win against the USA put Panama through. That, despite losing 4-0 to the USA just four days earlier too.
Panama progressed despite scoring just 16 goals from the 16 games they played across the fourth and fifth rounds in qualifying and winning just two of their eight away games. They finished second behind Costa Rica, ahead of Haiti and Jamaica, in the fourth round and then sealed that dramatic third place after Torres’ goal in the fifth round.
Panama have never previously qualified for the World Cup finals and will make their debut at Russia 2018.
Panama were forced to call Gent’s Ricardo Avila up to replace the injured Alberto Quintero after the experienced midfielder fractured his metatarsal during Panama’s warm-up matches. After a chastening 6-0 friendly defeat to Switzerland in March, it is expected that Panama will line-up defensively to face England and Belgium, with a five-man defence and two holding midfielders. Experience has been the order of the day for Panama, with Jaime Penedo seemingly set to be preferred in goal despite not featuring regularly at club level for Dinamo Bucharest. Penedo is 36, captain Felipe Baloy is 37, Roman Torres – fit again after a recent injury, having scored the foal that sent Panama to the World Cup – is 32 but has been capped more than 100 times, while 33-year-old Gabriel Gomez is closing in on 150 international caps. Goal kings Blas Perez and Luis Tejada celebrated their 37th and 36th birthdays in March, respectively, at which point they had 220 international caps and 86 international goals between them.
While few of Panama’s players will be known to European football fans, striker Gabriel Torres did once have a trial for Manchester United. He is competing with the country’s all-time joint top goalscorers, Blas Perez and Luis Tejada, for what is likely to be a solitary starting spot. Defender Roman Torres scored the goal that sent Panama to the World Cup, and the dreadlocked defender is likely to be key in Russia too.
A draw with Wales has been Panama’s best result since securing World Cup qualification, having suffered defeats to Iran and Denmark either side of it. Armando Cooper’s 90th-minute equaliser earned Panama the draw against the Welsh in November, but in March they lost 1-0 to Denmark and then 6-0 to Switzerland in back-to-back games. An entirely domestic-based squad restored a little pride, however, when Josiel Nunez scored a 90th-minute winner against Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly in April. They then drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland at the end of May to restore some defensive pride too, before a 1-0 defeat to Norway in their final warm-up match.
1 – Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucuresti) – Age 36 – 131 caps/0 goals
12 – Jose Calderon (Chorrillo) – Age 32 – 31 caps/0 goals
16 – Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco) – Age 27 – 6 caps/0 goals
2 – Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls) – Age 22 – 22 caps/2 goals
3 – Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes) – Age 26 – 52 caps/0 goals
4 – Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls) – Age 23 – 23 caps/1 goal
5 – Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders) – Age 32 – 111 caps/10 goals
13 – Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo) – Age 33 – 76 caps/1 goal
15 – Erick Davis (Dunajska Streda) – Age 27 – 38 caps/0 goals
17 – Luis Ovalle (Olimpia) – Age 29 – 25 caps/0 goals
23 – Felipe Baloy (Municipal) – Age 37 – 102 caps/3 goals
6 – Gabriel Gomez (Atletico Bucaramanga) – Age 34 – 144 caps/12 goals
8 – Edgar Barcenas (Tapachula) – Age 24 - 29 caps/0 goals
11 – Armando Cooper (Universidad de Chile) – Age 30 – 98 caps/7 goals
14 – Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador) – Age 27 – 23 caps/1 goal
19 – Ricardo Avila (Gent II) – Age 21 – 5 caps/0 goals
20 – Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes) – Age 28 – 89 caps/2 goals
21 – Jose Luis Rodriguez (Gent II) – Age 19 – 2 caps/0 goals
7 – Blas Perez (Municipal) – Age 37 – 118 caps/43 goals
9 – Gabriel Torres (Huachipato) – Age 29 – 72 caps/14 goals
10 – Ismael Diaz (Deportivo Fabril) – Age 21 – 11 caps/2 goals
18 – Luis Tejada (Sport Boys) – Age 36 – 105 caps/43 goals
22 – Abdiel Arroyo (Alajuelense) – Age 24 – 33 caps/5 goals
Panama’s achievement in simply reaching the World Cup should be lauded, but once there they are not expected to enjoy any further success, not least because of a draw that has landed them two leading European nations.
Belgium and England are likely to be already through after two matches, before meeting each other to decide top spot, leaving Panama and Tunisia to scrap for third place in the final group game. And with Tunisia favourites for that one, Panama should be backed at 4/9 to finish bottom of Group G with Bet365. They are just 1/16 to exit in the group stage.
Panama’s 6-0 friendly defeat to Switzerland, despite a set-up focused on keeping things tight defensively, was a chastening experience for Panama and an indicator of what could be expected at the World Cup.
Panama have stunned everybody just by qualifying for the World Cup finals, but their first taste of the tournament will end in the group stage – they will not overcome Belgium or England, and if they do it would rightfully be considered one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions