COLON(PANAMA): Panama's players will likely have a lump in their throats when they step on the field at the World Cup in Russia.
Coming from a country best known for baseball players, they will be overjoyed during their first trip to the World Cup. But they will also have one name on their minds: Amilcar Henriquez. The 33-year-old midfielder had been playing for Panama in World Cup qualifying until he was shot to death.
"We always carry him in our minds and hearts," Panama captain Roman Torres told The Associated Press, remembering his slain teammate as a warrior who left it all on the field.
Henriquez was murdered in April 2017.
"(It) was painful, and is still painful. We miss him," a teary-eyed Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez told the AP. "I argued with him many times, but Amilcar was one of the players who did the most so that I could come to Panama."
Authorities say Henriquez was shot several times by unknown assailants from a moving car as he was playing a pickup soccer game with friends in the Colon region on Panama's Atlantic coast. One other person was killed and a third one was wounded.
"His dream was to play a World Cup," said Hernandez's widow, Gixiani Pena. "He used to tell me: God willing, we're going to go make it to this World Cup."
The unsolved crime has shocked Panamanian football.
Many players from the small Central American nation hail from poor, violent neighbourhoods. At least 20 players, some of them retired, have been killed since 1990, according to official numbers. The most recent case took place on April 24, when former player Gilberto Salas was gunned to death in Panama City. Another player, Jose Luis Garces, who was nicknamed "The Gunman," spent time in prison for injuring a person with a firearm.
The violence "is a reflection of our society," said Gary Stempel, an Englishman who coached Panama and Guatemala. "These players from humble upbringings come from high-risk places."
Henriquez was born in Colon, one of Panama's poorest and most crime-ridden provinces. "Bob", as he was commonly known, began playing in streets lined with trash and raw sewage. By the age of 20, he had joined the ranks of his provincial club, and in 2005 he played his first game with the national team. He also went on to play with professional clubs in Costa Rica and Colombia, including Independiente Medellin, which at the time was coached by Gomez.
Panama hosted and won the 2009 UNCAF Nations Cup with a decisive penalty kick by Henriquez.
"I always cared for him a lot," said Stempel, who coached Panama in the UNCAP tournament, which is now known as Copa Centroamericana. "He was a great player, very disciplined and respectful. I couldn't believe (his death). He had to be part of this team."
Panama opens Group G in Sochi on June 18 against Belgium, then plays England in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 and Tunisia on June 28 in Saransk, where the team will be based for the tournament.
Henriquez played 84 games for the national team. The last time was during Panama's in 1-1 draw against the United States in World Cup qualifying. His widow later attended the stadium, and watched the game where Torres became a national hero after scoring the goal that clinched Panama's World Cup place.
"That day, at the stadium," she said. "I didn't know whether to cry of joy, or sadness."