Panama do themselves, their people proud despite opening defeat to Belgium
SOCHI, Russia -- As Panama's national anthem echoed around Fisht Stadium, the magnitude of the moment was impossible to miss.
Panama captain Roman Torres had his head down, eyes closed, engrossed in the realization of a dream. Panama fans everywhere belted out the anthem with unabashed joy, as if they had discovered a new favorite song. The players couldn't help but notice.
"It was very nice to see Panamanians, for them to see us playing internationally at our first World Cup, to see their happiness," said goalkeeper Jaime Penedo with the help of a translator.
Even Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez got caught up in the moment.
As international managers go, Gomez is as grizzled as they come. At World Cups he has seen both elation and heartache. He was an assistant coach on the Colombia teams that went to the 1990 and 1994 tournaments, the latter of which turned out to be ill fated given the death of Andres Escobar that followed. In 1998 he was the man in charge of Los Cafeteros, and four years later he took Ecuador to the World Cup for the first time in its history.
But the journey of this Panama team has been something special. It was secured on the last day of qualifying, and only because the U.S. inexplicably lost to Trinidad and Tobago. The team also had to deal with a death, that of midfielder Amilcar Henriquez, who was gunned down in front of his home in Colon. For those reasons, the moment was as immense for Gomez, a Colombian by birth, as it was for the players.
"It was a very emotional day for us. This is the fifth time that I'm at a World Cup, and I still felt as if it was my first," said Gomez with the aid of a translator. "I was extremely happy, very nervous, very anxious."
As it turned out, it was not a day for storybook endings. After riding its defensive strength through a scoreless first half, Panama ultimately fell to Belgium's superior quality, 3-0.
"We started the game and the team was still very emotional," said Gomez. "As time went by they were able to focus better."
Penedo added, "In the first half, we had order, an ordered team. In the second half they took maximum advantage of the three errors we had."
Belgium also took maximum advantage of its superior talent. There aren't many teams in the world that can go toe-to-toe with a side boasting the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and two-goal hero Romelu Lukaku. The first goal, scored by Dries Mertens, was a strike of high quality, as his volley arced over Penedo and into the Panama goal.
The Canaleros nearly equalized in the 55th minute, but Belgium keeper Thibaut Courtois was alert to the danger, and stuffed Michael Murillo's shot. It was then left to Lukaku to put the game away with two well-taken goals; the first a header in the 69th minute and the second a deft chip from a breakaway over the advancing Penedo just six minutes later.
Some teams might dwell on Murillo's miss, and play an endless game of "What if?" But there seemed to be few if any recriminations in the Panama camp. Rather, it was a simple acknowledgement that the more talented side had won.
"Nobody likes losing," said Gomez. "Maybe some people think that three goals against is too much, but to be honest, considering who our opponents are, and considering our history, and our development, I think that it's a normal result. They could have scored more."
Panama will need to regroup quickly. A match with England looms in six days' time, and the fact that it only managed to subdue Tunisia 2-1 will leave England eager to pad its goal differential.
"They're both very different, Belgium and England," said Penedo. "Belgium is more about individuals, England has a more balanced team."
But Panama by no means embarrassed itself on this day. It battled and harried and harassed Belgium as much they could, and even managed to put the Red Devils off their stride for a time. So for Panama, even in defeat, it proved to be a day to remember.
"I think that they are very happy, my boys are happy, the whole nation is happy," said Gomez. "It was an incredible experience for our country."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.