Friday 29 June 2018, 12:40

Changing of the guard brings new hope for Panama

  • ​Panama bow out of their maiden World Cup

  • Six pillars of the team also played their final game

  • New guard tasked with guiding them back for 2022

By Samuel McCollin with Panama

The historic 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ journey has ended for Panama. Their first chance to experience what lies beyond the familiarity of qualification. Now it’s time to apply what they have learned so that they can be back by Qatar 2022.

Their meeting with Tunisia wasn’t only their last match in Russia 2018, it was a farewell to six players who achieved their dream after chasing it for so many years, becoming heroes to a small country that experienced this World Cup euphorically. It also gave rise to the new names that will continue to be spoken around the world, taking on the responsibility of guiding this team into the future.

Voice of experience “The national team has been part of my life”, Gabriel Gomez told FIFA, before his 145th match with the side, which he played out in Saransk.

Considered as “the team's coach on the field”, Gomez played all three games in Russia, as well as being a mentor for the players who will continue representing the country.

Panama’s goalkeeper Jaime Penedo also bowed out from the team, and said the role that the veterans played in the squad was to lead by example, so that the younger ones can follow. “I’m sure it will be the first of many World Cups for Panama,” Penedo said. “It doesn’t depend on me any more and I’m sure that the players that stay will assume the responsibility.”

The prize that they couldn’t get Even before the World Cup began, Panama knew that they were the team with the lowest expectations, but it didn’t mean that they weren’t going to try their best. After a surprisingly solid performance against Belgium, despite defeat, then a heavy crash against England, they persevered for a point in their final match, but Tunisia denied them.

Panama had illusions of clinching victory after Jose Luis Rodriguez saw his effort deflected in by Yassine Meriah, but the team lost their composure in the second period, with Tunisia clinching a 2-1 win.

The defeat left frustration in Panama’s squad, however pride remained for what they have achieved. Post-match presented the perfect moment to hand over the responsibility that has been carried for so many years by captain Roman Torres, Gomez, Penedo, Felipe Baloy, Blas Perez and Luis Tejada, the last two who finish their international career as Panama’s joint top scorers with 43 goals each.

The present and the future Inside and outside Los Canaleros’s squad, there are a core of very talented players that can guide Panama to a quick World Cup return. Michael Murillo, Fidel Escobar, Ricardo Avila, Edgar Barcenas, Jose Luis Rodriguez, Abdiel Arroyo, Ismael Diaz, on top of those with more experience, can provide a strong look for Panama as they move forward.

“We learned a lot from them,” Barcenas said, reflecting on the players who were hanging up their boots, but will remain sources of wisdom and support. “That will help us, but now we need to understand that they aren’t playing with us anymore, and we need to get mentally strong and prepare ourselves better.”

Escobar also was thankful for how the veterans had helped him to be able to earn an important spot in the squad, with the 23-year-old defending insisting their role in this team will not be quickly forgotten. “They are the reference point for our football and we will fight for what they did for us."