Canal to Russia: Fans take giant strides to watch Panama’s baby steps at FIFA World Cup 2018

As was the case with Saudi Arabia on opening day, a lot of people are bristling with rage at how Panama were allowed to compete at the World Cup. Here’s how they got here.

Published: 25th June 2018 08:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2018 08:16 AM   |  A+A-

Panama football team

The Panama team sing their national anthem prior to the start of the group G match against England | AP

Express News Service

NIZHNY NOVGOROD: It's half-time at the Nizhny Stadium and England are leading Panama 5-0. Even as Panama’s manager Hernan Gomes shows amazing spirit by going up to his England counterpart Gareth Southgate at the break to offer his congratulations for an excellent half, some of the adjectives used on social media to describe his team include ‘filthy’ and ‘incompetent’ and parallels drawn include ‘Championship team’ and ‘pub team’.

As was the case with Saudi Arabia on opening day, a lot of people are bristling with rage at how Panama were allowed to compete at the World Cup. Here’s how they got here.

Panama finished third in CONCACAF qualifying and did not even require a play-off. They held the same Mexico — yes, the same Mexico who’ve suddenly become everyone’s second team in Russia — to a goalless draw at home and only lost 1-0 in the away leg.

Then they drew with the United States and Costa Rica before beating the latter — Brazil needed two injury-time goals to beat them — at home. The Costa Rica win took a country of four million people to their first ever World Cup. Now here’s what that means to them. Nicolas Gallardo cried when Panama qualified for the World Cup — it was his birthday that day and he says that was the best gift he could ever get. To watch his team play, he took an eighthour flight from Panama to Spain, then another three-hour flight from Spain to Italy, yet another flight from Italy to Moscow and then a six-hour train from Moscow to Nizhny. In return, he wants nothing. “I just want them to enjoy the World Cup and us to enjoy them.” Ida Sobers is a hardcore football fan but her husband prefers American football. So she convinced him to accompany her to Berlin.

Then she travelled to Vienna, and from there to Moscow. Her husband is still in Berlin. Alvaro is travelling along with a group of around 50 Panama fans. Like the rest, he too had to take a twisted road to Russia. “Panama to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Austria, Austria to Moscow,” he says. He estimates he will be blowing around $10,000 on this trip and claimed around 20,000 Panamanians have made the trip down to Russia, presumably spending similar money. On Twitter, a video circulated of a commentator in Panama breaking down as his country’s national anthem rang loud in Moscow for the first time.

Theirs is arguably the purest form of fandom, for they demand nothing of their team in return. Yet on Sunday, their team — and by extension, they — were ridiculed and mocked for daring to match up to and ending up being nowhere near a country with infinitely more footballing resources. After the game, Gomes described his team as ‘a baby born six months before the due date’. Yet a section of football’s elitist establishment just chose to flush it down the drain.


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