Panama booked their ticket to Russia and their first ever World Cup finals with a dramatic victory over Costa Rica. Untested at a major international level, it is difficult to predict how the team will react to the pressures, however they showed during qualifying that they are possibly one of the hardest-working teams in the competition, and I am in no doubt that this group of players, who have been playing together for a long time, will give their all in Russia this summer. Unfortunately, they have a tough task ahead of them if they are to qualify for the knockout stages out of a group consisting of Belgium, England and Tunisia.
Although a team of hard-working players with a vast amount of playing experience, only three of the starting eleven in the decisive qualifying match against Costa Rica were under the age of 29. There is a fear that this experience will be no match for the pace of powerful opposition such as Belgium. The team may well be faced with trying to grind out results while soaking up the significant pressure, and it remains to be seen whether the 36-year-old defensive rock Felipe Baloy will feature, considering he was dropped to the bench for the Costa Rica game.
- Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders) – In a squad made up of hard workers rather than individually talented players, there are few standout stars, however captain Roman Torres may well be considered as one. ‘Mazinger’ as he is known, this behemoth of a defender, whose physique more resembles that of a professional wrestler than a footballer, has proven that he has the determination and commitment to drive his team onwards, embodying the never-give-up work ethic that has gotten them this far. Challenged with being the real leader in the defensive unit in the absence of Baloy, Torres has shown that he is also capable of clinching crucial goals, such as the recent winner in the 2-1 victory over Costa Rica that secured qualification.
- Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucuresti) – 36 year old goalkeeper Penedo has formed part of the backbone of this Panama side for the last eight years. He has shown that he can be called upon to make the big saves when they are needed, but it is his long-standing relationship with his defensive unit that will be of most importance this summer.
Hernan Dario Gomez – Boasting an impressive qualification record with South American and CONCACAF teams, the 61 year old Gomez has previously brought his native Columbia to the World Cup finals in 1998, and Ecuador in 2002. However, his tournament record is less impressive, having been eliminated in the group stages on both occasions. It remains to be seen whether he can improve on that this time around, and lead his hard-working Panama side into the knockout stages.