PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez believes his side have qualified for their first World Cup earlier than they should have done and is limiting his ambitions to putting on a dignified display.
Unlike in most Latin American countries, football does not have a strong tradition in Panama and it lagged behind boxing, baseball and basketball in popularity until a few years ago.
Panama did not even enter the World Cup until the qualifiers for the 1978 tournament but that has changed and in the last decade they have become a force in the CONCACAF region.
Since 2005, they have twice reached the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the semi-finals on another two occasions, including a stormy defeat to Mexico in 2015.
Even so, Gomez said recently that he had not expected his team to qualify for a World Cup so early and admitted that Panama were the team that “the other 31 countries wanted to get in the draw”.
“It’s a young football country and we qualified before our time,” he said. “Panama doesn’t have a (Lionel) Messi, we don’t have a Neymar, we don’t have a Cristiano Ronaldo.”
But, with the United States in disarray and a favorable combination of results elsewhere, Panama finished third in the final stage of the CONCACAF qualifiers, despite winning only three out of 10 games and scoring a modest nine goals.
A 2-1 win over Costa Rica in their final game — helped by an equalizer where the ball clearly did not cross the line — meant they finished above Honduras on goal difference and one point ahead of the U.S. who lost 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago.
Suddenly, they were at the World Cup but are now wondering whether they have bitten off more than they can chew.
Panama, who will face Belgium, England and Tunisia in Group G, are certainly not short on experience and six members of the squad which took part in the March tour to Europe have more than 100 caps.
If anything, they are somewhat long in the tooth with a surprising number of key players, such as goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, defenders Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres, midfielders Gabriel Gomez and Alberto Quintero and forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada all into their 30s.
A lack of practice against teams from outside the CONCACAF region is another concern and a 6-0 friendly thumping in Switzerland — in which Gomez said his team were “stripped naked” — has left the coach with a certain amount of trepidation.
“We have made a dream come true by reaching the World Cup but we still have to do well when we get there,” he said.
“It’s a big task and we have to work out to put on a dignified display which the Panamanians can enjoy.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern, editing by Pritha Sarkar