The 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup will see two nations compete in the tournament for the first time. Panama joins Iceland as tournament debutants with both in store for a baptism by fire. For Los Canaleros, that became clear when the draw put them in the same group as Belgium and England.
Tunisia rounds out Group G and even they might prove formidable. The North Africans went unbeaten during World Cup qualifying and among their friendly results in 2018 are a 1-0 win over Panama’s fellow CONCACAF qualifiers Costa Rica and a 2-2 draw with Portugal. Putting it all together, it’s fairly certain that all three of the Panamanians’ group matches will be unique challenges in and of themselves.
Panama World Cup Squad Boasting Plenty of MLS Players Will Be Tested in World Cup Debut
The prevalence of MLS-based players in Panama’s player pool is readily apparent when looking at the final 23-man World Cup roster. All in all, six Panamanian MLSers are on their way to Russia which is tied with Costa Rica for the most of any nation taking part in the tournament. In fact, no other league has as many of its players on Panama’s roster than MLS does.
When you add former MLS players to that list, those with current or previous experience in the league balloons to over half the roster. Among the current crop, Roman Torres of the Seattle Sounders and Anibal Godoy of the San Jose Earthquakes are perhaps the most prominent. But fans of MLS are well-aware of names such as Jaime Penedo, Blas Pérez, Gabriel Torres and quite a few others who were part of the league in recent years.
The 35-man provisional roster had additional MLS influence albeit a small one. Columbus Crew SC‘s Cristian Martinez was part of that list even though he inevitably didn’t make the final cut. The young winger has seen his role with his club grow to its highest since joining the club two seasons ago. His 777 minutes for Columbus this year is more than he managed in 2016 and 2017 combined.
MLS and the Improved Competitiveness of CONCACAF
Ever since its inception, MLS has played a crucial part in the development of soccer in both Central America and the Caribbean. Just a cursory look at the World Cup roster and the players who contributed to Panama’s maiden qualifying success is the latest example. Now some people opine it’s come at the expense of the league’s home national team with their exhibit A the USMNT’s absence from this year’s World Cup.
One thing is abundantly clear. CONCACAF is as competitive as it’s ever been. Making the World Cup isn’t a privilege, it must be earned. Mexico found that out in getting bailed out by Graham Zusi during the last qualifying cycle. And the US found out last October when they failed to control their own destiny and subsequently had every permutation go against them. Both occasions affected Panama, with Mexico benefiting from their heartbreak only for them to realize redemption four years later.
Panama’s Aging Squad Facing Three Much Younger Teams in Russia
Despite the euphoria associated with qualifying for soccer’s quadrennial showpiece for the first time, Panama has a tough task ahead of it. Their group contains two established European powers and an African side who could surprise to the upside. Not only that but the nucleus of this Panamanian squad isn’t exactly the most youthful.
That becomes evident when looking at the average age of their World Cup roster. It stands at 28.82 years old which is the third oldest in the tournament behind, ironically, Mexico (28.87) and Costa Rica (29.09). That’s in stark contrast to their three looming opponents in Group G, particularly England (25.56) and Tunisia (26) who rank second and fourth-youngest respectively. Belgium’s average age of 27.13 years old is 13th among the 32 national sides.
Is it a sign that this is the twilight of Panama’s golden generation? Fully nine of the 10 most capped players in the team’s history make up this squad, including 34-year-old Gabriel Gomez who’s made an all-time best 144 appearances for Panama. Expected starting goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, captain Felipe Baloy, and forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada are all 36 or older. Perez and Tejada both have 43 international goals, tied for the most in Panamanian history.
Assessing Los Canaleros’ Chances
Club team level of play is another concern. Baloy and Perez are not only both 37. They’re both teammates on Municipal in Guatemala’s top flight. Baloy faces a harrowing task trying to slow down players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku among others who play in the English Premier League. Meanwhile, Perez and Panama’s attack must bring their A-game against three defenses who as a whole averaged .54 goals conceded per game during qualifying. In other words, they must be better around the opponent’s goal than they’ve been during their five friendlies in 2018 where they haven’t scored once.
Looking at it realistically, Belgium and England are overwhelming favorites to advance out of this group. For Los Canaleros, pulling off a shock qualification for the round of 16 likely necessitates grinding out a draw against one of those two, hoping Tunisia does the same, then knocking off The Eagles of Carthage in the group finale. They might also need England reverting to their usual underperforming selves at major tournaments. More than anything, they must avoid falling victim to the “happy to be here” mentality.
Still, success doesn’t necessarily mean getting out of the group. Give the Red Devils and Three Lions a resolute and spirited effort over 90 minutes. Rekindle the spirit of their 2-1 win over Costa Rica that secured their spot in Russia by upending Tunisia. And in a group with two teams who have legitimate trophy aspirations, it’s possible to portray Panama’s first-ever World Cup appearance in a positive light.
LUZERN, SWITZERLAND – MARCH 27: Back:(L-R) Michael Murillo of Panama, Gabriel Torres of Panama, Avila Ricardo of Panama, Jaime Penedo of Panama, Adolfo Machado of Panama, Harold Cummings of Panama, Front:(L-R) Luis Ovalle of Panama, Miguel Camargo of Panama, Anibal Godoy of Panama, Gabriel Gomez of Panama, Roman Torres of Panama during the International Friendly match between Switzerland v Panama at the Luzern Arena on March 27, 2018 in Luzern Switzerland (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)