The Republic of Panama are appearing at their first ever World Cup finals having qualified in spectacular fashion ahead of the United States from FIFA’s Hexagonal fifth round.
Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres scored a dramatic late winner for the tiny central American nation against Costa Rica in their final match as the USA lost to Trinidad & Tobago.
Their reward alongside a ticket to Russia is a devilishly strong Group G containing tournament dark horses Belgium, underachievers England and an inform Tunisia.
Surprisingly not the lowest ranked team at the tournament, with that prize going to hosts Russia (70) – Panama at 55th, are placed higher than South Korea (57), Japan (61) and Saudi Arabia (67).
They are led by an astute World Cup manager in Hernan Dario Gomez, who is one of just four people to have taken three different national teams to the tournament – having managed Colombia at France ’98 and Ecuador in Japan and South Korea in 2002.
El Bolillo will be looking for his experienced albeit slightly ageing strikers Blas Perez (37) and Luis Tejada (36) to give opposition defences a hard time as Fidel Escobar and Torres keep things tight at the other end.
The two frontmen are almost tied at the top of the country’s all-time leading scorer list with Perez with 40 goals in 117 games and Tejada leading with 42 from 105.
Belgium and England are favorites to get out of the group, but in their way will be a Panama side with nothing to lose and everything to play for. They qualified against enormous odds and with significant losses.
They might find some extra strength in their prayers for fallen teammate Amilcar Henriquez, who was shot dead in 2017.
The 33-year-old Arabe Unido midfielder with 85 national team caps, and a father of three, scored the penalty to gave Panama their only title in their history, in the 2009 Copa Naciones.
Goalkeepers: Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest, Romania), Alex Rodríguez (San Francisco FC).
Defenders: Felipe Baloy (CSD Municipal), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Eric Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (CD Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders).
Midfielders: (Universidad San Martin de Porres), Armando Cooper (Club Universidad de Chile), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Bucaramanga), Valentin Pimentel (Plaza Amador), Alberto Quintero (Universitario de Lima), Jose Luis Rodriguez (KAA Gent).
Forwards: Abdiel Arroyo (LD Alajuelense), Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sports Boys), Gabriel Torres (CD Huachipato).