FIFA World Cup 2018: For Panama fans, joy of maiden World Cup appearance trumps pain of humbling loss to England

Nizhny Novgorod: “Ole, Ole, Ole… Panama, Panama!” rang the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, the potentially demoralising scoreline a trifling concern. Panama’s fans, excitable even in defeat, now had a genuine moment to release their cheerfulness. A first World Cup goal, in a match that was termed the “hardest of the group” by coach Hernan Dario Gomez.

The mood of celebration had been set early. The previous night, on the popular Bolshaya Pokrovskaya street, Panama’s fans gathered in huge numbers to make their presence felt. Financially, it was a daunting prospect for many in the country of four million inhabitants to visit Russia for the World Cup — estimates range from six to eight thousand USD if you were to watch Panama play all three group games.

Panama's fans react after the Russia 2018 World Cup Group G match against England. AFP

Panama's fans react after the Russia 2018 World Cup Group G match against England. AFP

But many have taken up what they consider an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The freakish turn of events in the CONCACAF qualifying phase, the fans assume, are unlikely to be repeated. Panama were the major beneficiary of a forgettable campaign for the regional heavyweight United States of America. Although Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) may return to the World Cup in 2026 when it expands to 48 teams — that trip may turn out to be cheaper for Panama fans as well since it will be jointly hosted by the US, Canada, and Mexico — about 4000 fans did not want to pass up the chance to see their team in action on its maiden appearance.

It has been a debut which has brought home multiple lessons. The technical and tactical inefficiencies of the Panama side have been brutally exposed; the first 45 minutes against Belgium, when the Central Americans were able to stymie the opposition, seems like an aberration now. Discipline has been another issue in Panama’s play, the second penalty conceded against England on Sunday was a sign of desperate fouling because nothing else was working.

However, this World Cup has also been an opportunity to learn more about Panama and its fans. The supporters have stood out for their vociferous chanting, their genial disposition and a disarming cheeriness even when things have gone bad. They have also been keen to share information about Panamanian football. But most importantly, they want the world to know their team made it. A particularly enjoyable sight on the night before the match against England was the heavily outnumbered Panamanians out-singing their English counterparts in the city centre.

The noisy support continued inside the stadium on a scorching Sunday here. The fans were decked in the red, blue, and yellow colours of their team, standing in unison whenever they caught a glimpse of a chance. The mood was somewhat dampened by the concession of five goals before half-time but the supporters found their voice in the latter period.

After 78 minutes, the vigil found its catharsis. Satisfaction arrived on the shoulders of the most respected figure in the team. 37-year-old Felipe Baloy has seen Panama through its dark years. The defender’s decision to hang his boots up after this World Cup will be sweetened by his historic intervention. It was not just any other goal. A look on the Panama fans’ faces said it all. Delirium overtook them; tears, smiles, and shouts on a single face. A ‘what just happened’ look plastered over the visage.

The fact that it was Baloy who scored the goal had not missed them. He had been there when Panama was just among the hundreds of teams who could only dream of playing in the World Cup. Now they were all a part of it.

Eventually, the Panama fans walked away pleased with the day’s work. The one goal in a 1-6 defeat carries a possibility of a better future for their favourite team. There is still the encounter against Tunisia on Thursday in Saransk and the supporters believe that their first point in the World Cup may not have to wait until the next tournament.

The Panamanians in Russia have a few more days still to cherish this opportunity. Even though nine goals have been conceded in the opening two days, the party can go on for a bit. As fans, players, and coach Gomez have stressed, it is about making it to the World Cup. Everything else comes as a bonus. Their perception of the World Cup deserves a few hearings. Not every poor result should be a referendum on the place of the poorer nations in the tournament.

As Panama showed against Belgium, it can offer a resolute display even when odds are stacked up against the team. Even though the stronger outfit will outdo Los Canaleros on most occasions, the experience will only make Panama better — a point coach Gomez has been keen to stress. The benefits may begin to appear in the next few years. For the fans who will count the cost of this trip for the coming few years, thanks to the credit borrowed to make this happen, the experience of visiting a World Cup has already enriched them.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 15:35 PM

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