October 10th 2017. A day that will live long in the memories of the four million inhabitants of the Central American state that connects two of the world’s continents. A day so important in Panama’s history, that President Juan Carlos Varela ordered that the following day be declared a national holiday, so that his people could celebrate the actions of a group of men on a football pitch in the country’s capital.
After this declaration, it’s likely that October 11th 2017 may not be remembered as clearly as the day before.
An 88th minute right footed volley proved to be the winner in a closely fought contest with Costa Rica, a country with a similar population to Panama and on an upward trajectory in footballing terms. Los Canaleros would do well to replicate their northwestern neighbours if they want to avoid this summer’s excursion to Russia being a fleeting visit to football’s top table.
That late goal was slotted past Costa Rica ‘keeper Patrick Pemberton (Keylor Navas picked up a muscle injury and didn’t feature) by striker Roman Torres. Torres’ club career mimics that of many of his international colleagues: several seasons playing in Panama’s top flight – the Liga Panameńa de Fútbol – before moving abroad, normally to other minor South American top flight, in this case Colombia, before finally reaching a higher quality league in North America or Europe.
Interestingly, back in 2007 Torres’ international teammate and namesake Gabriel was considered one of Panama’s most promising talents and was invited to train with Manchester United. The striker tore a muscle in his thigh during his first and only training session before flying home and never returned. The striker then spent some time in Colombia – and briefly Venezuela – before moving to the United States with Colorado Rapids and then Lausanne in Switzerland.
This goes some way to explaining why Panama have reached their first major finals now and not in 2010 or 2014 when the majority of their starting XI were within the traditional peak years of their careers. Although physically these players may have been in better condition to help their side qualify four or eight years ago, a large portion of the squad weren’t playing at a high enough club level to compete on the international stage.
Jaime PENEDO (GK) – Age: 36 Years*: 5 (06-07, 13-15, 16-)
Fidel ESCOBAR – Age: 23 Years*: 2 (16-)
Román TORRES (C) – Age: 31 Years*: 3 (15-)
Gabriel GÓMEZ – Age: 33 Years*: 5 (07-12)
Blas PÉREZ – Age: 36 Years*: 9 (07-16)
Édgar BÁRCENAS – Age: 24 Years*: 2 (16-)
Gabriel TORRES – Age: 29 Years*: 4 (13-15, 16-)
Adolfo MACHADO – Age: 32 Years*: 1 (17-)
Luis OVALLE – Age: 29 Years*: 1 (08)
Alberto QUINTERO – Age: 30 Years*: 3 (13-14, 16-) Quintero did play in Spain for several years but only in the third tier, which would not be considered a step up from the leagues being excluded.
Aníbal GODOY – Age: 27 Years*: 5 (13-)
Armando COOPER – Age: 30 Years*: 7 (11-15, 16-)
Luis TEJEDA – Age: 35 Years*: 4 (05, 07, 12-13)
Abdiel ARROYO – Age: 24 Years*: 1 (16)
*This is the number of years not spent in Central or South American leagues that are not considered the same quality as a mid-high level European league. This includes Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia (mid-table clubs or below), Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, Uruguay (mid-table clubs or below).
Average age: 30
Average number of leagues spent in higher quality competitions: 3.7 years
Not one of the fourteen players who featured in the crucial tie against Costa Rica play their football in Panama, and only three of the starting eleven still play in the region.
Clearly talent is being produced in the region, otherwise Manchester United would never have awarded Torres with a trial. But the infrastructure in place to develop that talent within Panama and region is lacking, and it’s only when these players move abroad that they’re able to reach a higher level. It’s why the progression of Panama’s golden generation has shifted back a tournament cycle given the age of the players involved, because these players aren’t reaching their highest level until much later compared to a European or South American side with a similar pool of talent.
The two youngest members of the team that started their final qualifier, Fidel Escobar and Édgar Bárcenas, both left the region in 2016 at a comparatively young age compared to their more experienced teammates. Escobar is still contracted to a Panamanian club – Sporting San Miguelito – but has spent the last two seasons in Portugal and the USA with Sporting CP and New York Red Bulls. His domestic club clearly see him as a valuable asset and don’t want to part with him permanently until the right offer comes in, but recognise that in order to develop his talent, he needs to be playing abroad.
Bárcenas also spent a season out on loan in Europe, treading what is becoming a more and more frequented path to Croatia with RNK Split in a league fast gaining a reputation for producing and nurturing young talent. Bárcenas, like Escobar, is also still contracted to a Panamanian club (Árabe Unido) but his latest loan move is slightly closer to home in Mexico’s second tier with Cafetaleros de Tapachula.
Is there a conclusion to gain from all this? Time will tell this summer whether or not the World Cup has come one year too late for many of this Panama side to truly thrive, but with a better strategy in place for making sure that their brightest talent is playing at an appropriate level at crucial points in their development, the signs are looking bright for La Marea Roja – The Red Tide.