PanamaIllustrated By Alison Cowles
OF THE SIX TEAMS in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup 2014 qualification, Panama has the least-impressive soccer tradition. The country has never reached the World Cup, and barely has a history of making it as far as they have during the run-up to Brazil. But La Marea Roja (The Red Tide) are improving, now finding themselves consistently in the top 50 in the FIFA world rankings. Panama nearly won the 2005 Gold Cup, falling to the United States on penalty kicks in the final, and achieved their best-ever qualifying result on the road to Germany 2006. The Panamanians lost in the second round of 2010 World Cup qualification after drawing El Salvador, but this time around finished second on point differential behind Honduras in Group C in the third round of 2014 qualification.
Blas Perez, FC Dallas' 31-year-old forward, is the team's most dangerous attacker, while Santos Laguna defender Felipe Baloy serves as captain and organizes the back four. Panama, which plays home matches in the recently renovated and expanded Estadio Rommel Fernandez, is not a favorite to advance. But the team beat Honduras away and could slip into the third or fourth slot with some favorable bounces. The question is whether this shallow-but-unified group will ride the recent ascent to Brazil, or fall just short at CONCACAF’s final hurdle.
The CoachJULIO DELY VALDES is one of Panama's most successful and famous footballers. The Colon-born forward played 32 times for the national team between 1990 and 2005, scoring 22 goals and figuring in the 2005 Gold Cup final. Valdes spent time on squads including Cagliari, Paris Saint-Germain, Malaga, and Uruguay’s Nacional. As a player, he won the UEFA Cup Winner's Cup and Uruguay’s First Division championship, and finished second in Ligue 1 twice. On the coaching side, he served as Panama's interim manager in 2006–also doing a stint with the U-17s and U-20s–before moving to Malaga as an assistant. His native country called again in 2010, as he replaced English-Panamanian Gary Stempel and oversaw the successful semifinal round qualification process. The job will continue to be Valdes' unless Panama fails to reach the 2014 World Cup.
The TacticsUNDER FORMER PANAMANIAN international hero Julio Dely Valdes, Panama is a united and tactical squad capable of giving any team in the region a tough match. Long a doormat of Central America, the Red Tide has evolved into a decidedly strategic bunch, looking to exploit their various (if limited) strengths in different ways, according to the potential vulnerabilities of opponents. Dely Valdes will often look to pack in and counter against more powerful opponents, relying on a defense led by experienced veterans Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres, as well as goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Against lesser opponents, speed on the flanks becomes key as Panama does anything and everything possible to feed the likes of Blas Perez, an opportunistic striker who usually finds ways to score. That formula has brought Panama to the brink of its first-ever World Cup. Against the United States, Panama has traditionally struggled, winning just a single game and posting an 0-3-1 record all time in World Cup qualifying. The tie came in the run up to the 2006 event, when the teams drew 1-1 in Panama City. A similar result this time around would be very much a win for the Central American country.
The HistoryPANAMA HAS NEVER advanced to the World Cup. They finished last in the 2006 fourth round, earning just two points and posting a minus-17 goal differential. It was the first time the country reached the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualification.
World Cup Results1990: DNQ (Eliminated in the first round of 1989 CONCACAF Championship qualifying)
1994: DNQ (Eliminated in first round)
1998: DNQ (Eliminated in semifinal round)
2002: DNQ (Eliminated in semifinal round)
2006: DNQ (Eliminated in final round)
2010: DNQ (Eliminated in second round)