Panama ready to live World Cup dream after series of heartbreaks

Julio Dely Valdes had been waiting for this moment his entire life. The former Panamanian international player and manager was sitting in his living room in Malaga, Spain. Roman Torres had just scored to put Panama ahead in a crunch World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. With the U.S. losing 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago, a first qualification for the World Cup was in his country's grasp.

Minutes later the dream became reality, yet Dely Valdes could not celebrate with as much gusto as the moment demanded.

"When Roman [Torres] scored, I felt tremendous emotion. I wanted to scream and yell but I couldn't!" he said. "It was the middle of the night here!"

No doubt, Dely Valdes has had plenty of opportunities to celebrate since. And it is an achievement well worth full-throated cheers. In terms of minnows qualifying for the World Cup, Iceland takes the cake with its population of just over 300,000. But Panama -- home to four million -- isn't exactly a giant.

Dely Valdes, who coaches Malaga's B team, is overjoyed at the prospect. He hopes that the Canaleros will be able to replicate what fellow CONCACAF representatives Costa Rica did four years ago, when the Ticos reached the quarterfinals.

A group featuring Belgium, England and Tunisia is a daunting task indeed for Panama, but Dely Valdes remains optimistic.

"Costa Rica played well [in 2014]; they were serious and competitive. Why can't Panama do the same in Russia?" he said.

There is an impulse to assume that Panama's success has been the result of a long-term vision and astute planning. The suggestion elicits a rueful laugh from Gary Stempel, a longtime coach in Panama at the youth, club, and senior international levels.

"That would have been nice, I suppose," said Stempel, Panama's Under-17 national team manager, via telephone. "It wasn't really done that way. It was a series of changes that happened on the way."

That isn't to say that Panama has no history of producing outstanding athletes -- it counts baseball greats Rod Carew and Mariano Rivera among its countryman, as well as iconic boxer Roberto Duran -- but the process of raising the national soccer team's international profile was long and arduous.

Stempel recalls that, when he first started training teams in the late 1990s, players worked as taxi drivers or construction workers and then showed up to training with one running shoe and one football boot. There was little in the way of facilities, equipment, or even hope.

"The players made a major sacrifice," said Stempel. "You're working all day and then training. There was nothing in it financially. It was just their dream to be a football player that got them there. The credit is always to them. But it was very challenging to keep players motivated, to keep them coming, to train every day. The coaching staff, we would try to help them out, we would give them money here or there."

In terms of a league to prepare players for the international game, there wasn't much help in that regard either. While the Liga Panamena has existed in one form or another since 1988, its level of support from the public at large has been tepid at best.

"Panama have actually done it in reverse," said Stempel. "In football countries, your first love is your club. The first passion that you have is for every Saturday afternoon is with the real fans. Panama doesn't have that. Panama's first love is for the national team. The clubs here aren't traditional clubs, they don't have their own stadiums. You will get crowds of 50, 60, maybe 100 sometimes. When it gets to the semifinal and final the crowds will get bigger, but there isn't that identity, passion that there is in other countries."

So how did Panama do it? FIFA's Goal Program, from which Panama received $1 million over four years in the early 2000s, helped but it was more a case of small successes leading to bigger ones.

Stempel recalls taking a Panama national team to the 1997 Central American games, which were held in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The team didn't have hotel or transportation arrangements, yet reached the final, losing to Costa Rica. Stempel later led Panama's team to the 2003 U20 World Cup, the first time it had qualified for a World Cup at any level. The senior team reached the final of the 2005 Gold Cup, where it lost to the U.S. on penalties.

"It awoke the sports consciousness of the people to believe in the team, and also I think players," said Stempel. "Maybe they had an inferiority complex about playing the big teams. Now they didn't and I think that helped as well."

Such platforms also allowed players to get noticed, allowing them to become full-time professionals. Players such as Torres, Felipe Baloy and Gabriel Gomez signed contracts with foreign clubs and the improvement they made translated back to the national team.

Panama won the Copa Naciones -- a tournament featuring Central American clubs -- in 2009, it's first triumph in the event. It later defeated the U.S. at the 2011 Gold Cup, handing the giant its first ever defeat in the group stage.

By the time qualifying for the 2014 World Cup came around, Dely Valdes was the manager and a spot in a confederation playoff was there for the taking. On the last night of qualifying Panama was leading the U.S. 2-1, only for a late collapse to take place, resulting in a defeat that saw Mexico leapfrog into the playoff position.

"[The results] were there, it was happening," said goalkeeper Jaime Penedo in a 2013 interview. "Then the moment escapes from you. That part [was] very painful."

Dely Valdes resigned shortly thereafter and in his place came Colombian Hernan Dario "Bolillo" Gomez. He had been a longtime assistant to Colombia manager Francisco Maturana during the country's "Golden Age" of the mid-1990s, before taking Colombia to the 1998 World Cup, then Ecuador four years later. Gomez has also managed Guatemala and had a second stint with the country of his birth.

Rather than make his players forget about what happened, Gomez sought to have them face up to it.

"The first thing that I did to start the process with Panama was to converse with the players and tell them: 'It wasn't the United States that eliminated Panama from the last qualifying cycle, it was yourselves who lost and were left out," he said via a team spokesperson. "You did something poorly and God made you pay the price and even deprived you of going to the playoff. This time you are going to be rewarded when you regroup and correct the errors that you committed on that occasion.'

"That was the key to the triumph of this process, in that they knew how to rectify the errors, unite more like a family and shut down anything from the outside that looked to weaken or divide them."

That approach was put to the ultimate test midway through the final round of the Hexagonal when midfielder Amilcar Henriquez was shot and killed while leaving his home in Colon.

"[Henriquez's] passing represented a huge pain for us and left a space that has been difficult to fill," Gomez said via a team spokesperson. "His presence is felt at every moment and they boys recognize that."

"It gave us more strength," added midfielder Anibal Godoy via a translator. "For me, he was a player that left everything on the field. For us it gave us another goal of getting to the World Cup, of helping him achieve his dream. He was really important to us both on and off the field, and he deserves a lot of the credit because he helped us in a lot of games."

As the Hex wound down, it looked like qualification might elude Panama once again. The Canaleros were hammered by the U.S. 4-0 in their penultimate qualifier, leaving them needing to better Honduras' result on the final day just to reach a playoff with Australia. Getting the third and final automatic qualifying spot would require a victory against already-qualified Costa Rica along with the U.S. losing to Trinidad and Tobago.

"It was devastating for everybody," said Stempel of the result against the U.S. "It was in everybody's subconscious. 'No, not again.'"

Yet Godoy insisted that the players hadn't given up hope.

"We believed in ourselves, and the experience from four years ago really helped us," said Godoy. "We were ready for that game against Costa Rica."

The first half didn't look promising, as Johan Venegas put Costa Rica up 1-0. It left Gomez to summon the team talk of his life: "I reminded them about what had happened in 2013 and I touched every fiber of pride in each of the players."

It was then that the luck, which abandoned the Canaleros four years ago, appeared at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. Despite the ball never crossing the line, Gabriel Torres was credited with a goal in the 53rd minute, though he insisted he should have been awarded a penalty anyway. It was left to Torres to supply the late heroics, latching on to Luis Tejada's knockdown with three minutes of normal time remaining and shooting home from 10 yards out.

"We didn't know the results," said Godoy. "When Torres made it 2-1, in the middle of the celebration Baloy came and he said that we're on the path for the World Cup because the U.S. were losing to T&T. When the referee blew the final whistle, the fans knew, we knew, and all the fans came onto the field. It was the first time for the country that we did it. It was really incredible. I went to look for my family, the fans came onto the field, they were celebrating, they were in shock."

It didn't take long for the disbelief to evaporate. The party was on and the country came to a standstill.

"The roads were closed and the 24-hour supermarkets ran out of beer within an hour," said Stempel. "People were just celebrating on the streets. If you had to get home and you weren't a football fan, forget it. You had to sleep on the street or just leave your car somewhere and walk home. It was just crazy. At one o'clock in the morning they went to the presidential palace. And he decreed a day off the next day."

Panama will open the tournament with Belgium on June 18 in Sochi, followed by England five days later in Nizhny Novgorod and Tunisia on June 28 in Saransk. They are huge underdogs and have an aging squad, with six players age 33 or over. Scoring goals figures to be a problem, with just nine netted in 10 Hexagonal matches. But low expectations can have benefits as well.

"I'm sure of one thing, nobody wants to play the little teams in the World Cup, especially if you're a big team and especially in the first round," said Stempel. "The expectation is that not only do you have to win, but you have to win well. That's huge pressure, and I think Panama will do well knowing that. If you're well-organized, you keep to your plan, you're disciplined and you have that internal faith, then I think Panama will do well, and [opponents] will be surprised."

Regardless, the World Cup will be a special moment for the nation.

"I think Panama will have a dignified tournament and leave people saying, 'I liked watching Panama'," said Dely Valdes. "Personally, when I see the Panama flag and I hear our anthem, I'm probably going to cry. It is going to be beautiful."

And a dream come true.