How Panama made it to the World Cup 2018

With three minutes remaining, Roman Torres bundled his way into the Costa Rica penalty area.

A centre-back by trade, Torres isn’t often discovered in these positions but his country needed a moment of magic.

The dreadlocked defender caught the ball sweetly, his volley searing past Patrick Pemberton in the Costa Rican goal. Panama shook with celebration. Literally.

Up on the gantries inside Estadio Rommel Fernandez, home commentators disregarded even the slightest sense of impartiality. “Gol,” one screamed, 35 times in a minute, his voice creaking and cracking with the emotion of the moment. Two more jumped up and down, hugging each other, in tears. A fourth hung out of a media box window, arms wide apart, breathing in history.

On the roads of Panama – the fascinating central American country with little more than 4million residents – car horns sounded through the night. Almost immediately, the streets were filled with jubilant locals.

The president – Juan Carlos Varela – decreed the following day, October 12, would be a national holiday.

“The voice of the people has been heard,” he said. It was almost impossible to ignore it.

Football, like most sport, brings out the most carnal emotions in human beings, and the reaction to Los Canaleros (quite literally, the Canal Boys) qualifying for the World Cup was a case in point.

There was a good reason, too.

Panama had been trying to qualify for the planet’s biggest sporting spectacle for more than 40 years without success and, four short years earlier, had come agonisingly close to doing so.

Leading the USA with the match entering stoppage time and a win required to secure a place in the Intercontinental play-offs, Panama contrived to concede twice to find themselves eliminated from the competition.

The memories of that evening’s heartbreak fuelled the outpouring of joy and relief when Torres’ volley hit the net, and again when the final whistle blew a few minutes later.

Panamanian football’s story arc had found the perfect curve.

The country’s most prominent newspaper, La Prensa, summed the entire episode up as “The Miracle of Roman”.

“Four years ago there were tears of pain,” its editorial read the morning after the night before. “Now there are tears of happiness.

“Panama is going to Russia 2018 and the hero is called Roman Torres.”

Torres was indeed the hero that night but Panama’s impressive climb up the sport’s global ladder is down to more than one Seattle Sounder’s right foot.

It is not that long ago that Panama sat 140th in FIFA’s world rankings (the position currently occupied by Afghanistan), while the country’s first formal league was not established until 1988.

Over the course of the past 25 years, however, the country has witnessed a steady rise. Post-Noriega Panama offered an opportunity for a structure to be introduced into the sport and a coaching and pastoral culture encouraged to take root.

Where previously facilities and funding had been practically non-existent, now a small trickle was made available to the ambitious individuals who wanted to make a difference; men such as English-born coach Gary Stempel, who told Mundo Futbol: “It wasn’t unusual for us to train in baseball pitches, or for our players to come with broken shoes, with no laces or studs”.

Stempel and others like him helped Panama create a modern footballing culture, and relative success followed.

In 2003, the country’s Under-20 side reached the World Cup; in 2005 and 2013 the senior team made it all the way to the Gold Cup final.

Now they have a chance on the biggest stage of all.

There are few stories so deserving of telling at this summer’s tournament, but Panama did still rely on a hefty dose of luck to get to Russia.

While Torres’ goal and the celebrations that ensued are the defining images of October 11, Los Canaleros would not have made the draw but for a galling refereeing mistake by Walter Lopez, who bizarrely awarded the Panamanians an equaliser on the night after a goalmouth scramble which ended with the ball dribbling wide.

The lack of video technology in CONCACAF qualifying came to the aid of the home side, however, and the rest, as they say is history.

Now, all eyes are turned to Russia.

Panama have among the toughest draws they could have imagined – a Belgian team blessed with a deep talent pool, an English side unbeaten in qualifying and the highest-ranked African outfit, Tunisia.

Nothing is expected of coach Hernan Dario Gomez’s squad. But one thing is for sure, there is no way anyone associated with Panama football will ever forget this World Cup or the way in which they got there.

Sam Morshead Sam Morshead is a British sports journalist. You can follow him on Twitter

Cover Image: In this photo taken on Wednesday, May 16, 2018, the new World Cup stadium Mordovia Arena in Saransk, Russia. Several of Russia’s 12 World Cup stadiums look set to be largely empty after the tournament. It’s a problem for Russia, which is spending almost $11 billion on the World Cup, and for FIFA. Fans and officials predict more government money will be needed to maintain several stadiums set to host mostly unglamorous lower-league games. (AP Photo/Julia Chestnova)