Panamá, in only its second significant international tournament, advanced to the second round by beating Columbia 1-0, tying Trinidad & Tobago 2-2, and losing to Honduras 0-1; advanced to the Semifinals by beating South Africa 5-3 on penalty kicks (1-1 in regulation); and advanced to the Finals by beating Colombia 3-2. In the Finals they finally succumbed to heavily-favored USA, but not after extending a 0-0 tie into the penalty kick phase.
Wow! As their coach, José 'Che Che' Hernandez, said, "We lost to a great rival and a great team today, but throughout this competition we have represented Panamá with honour and dignity and I am immensely proud of my team." Watching Panamá these past two weeks has been as great as any World Cup. I wish I could personally thank goalkeeper Jaime Penedo (whom we've nicknamed Mullet Boy, Goalie Pants, and Samson), defenseman Felipe Baloy, strikers Jorge Luis Dely Valdes and Luis Tejada, and, of course, midfielders Julio Medina III and Ricardo 'Paton' Phillips for showing the world that the Canaleros can play with anyone.
I thought the 3-2 victory over Colombia was one of the most exciting matches I'd ever seen. All 5 goals were great goals. You know it takes a great effort to get one by on Penedo, and Colombia had 2 such great efforts. And the 3 Panamá goals were textbook. Number 1: on a foul kick, Medina sends the ball into the middle in front of the goal, where Phillips puts in the perfect header just past the goalie's hands. Number 2: Luis Moreno makes the perfect centering pass, and all Dely Valdes has to do is stretch his leg in and tap the ball into goal. Number 3: Tejada takes the ball and charges up the middle, drawing two defenders in; at the last moment he passes to Phillips, who had been running alongside and showed the whole world why he is called 'Paton' (big kick/leg) with the perfectly placed crossing strike.
But Sunday's Final was one of the best soccer games I have seen, period. Both teams gave it their all. The U.S. came out strong and took Panamá out of its ball-control game. Panamá adapted midway through the half, taking out a midfielder and adding an extra striker. The U.S. had trouble with this unexpected new look, and Panamá looked the better team throughout the second half and in the extra periods. Both teams had clear scoring opportunities. Panamá perhaps had the better opportunities, with Dely Valdes' attack bouncing off the crossbar and Tejada's backwards bicycle kick in traffic missing by only a few inches. DaMarcus Beasley had a clear opportunity for the U.S. as well, but Penedo stopped everything the U.S. sent his way. (And later an exhausted Beasley practically limped off the field for a substitute.) It was a matched that rivalled some of the best World Cup matches I have seen. (And I have to wonder how differently it would have ended if 'Paton' Phillips, called by some the heart and soul of Panamá's team, had been available to play in the Final.)
Panamá's efforts did not go unnoticed. Penedo was named the Gold Cup's best goalkeeper, Tejada was named the Gold Cup's best player, and 3 Panamanians(Baloy, Tejada, Penedo), more than any other nation, were named to the Gold Cup All-Star Team. Panamá, by virtue of advancing to the Final, jumped to 83 on FIFA's global ranking, its highest position ever, and will probably jump to the top 50 as a result of its impressive showing against the 6th-ranked US. The next round of World Cup qualifying starts in September, and Panamá is now being talked up as one of the favorites to qualify from CONCACAF along with the U.S. and Mexico.
Panamá's style is to control the ball and tempo of the game with their midfielders, led by Medina, and attack relentlessly. They tend to attack up the middle, which is unusual, but have the skill and speed to bring it up the sides as well. Their weakness has been scoring — they create many opportunities but convert a low percentage of them … more now that Tejada has joined the team — and defense — Baloy is a tremendous defender, making fantastic sweeps and always marking an opponent, but the rest of the defense sometimes looks confused. Their strength is their midfield, their aggressiveness, and their goalkeeper. Another strength, one that was remarked upon by the Univision commentators, is their cohesiveness and team play. 'Che Che' Hernandez has done a tremendous job fostering a team ethic. I would be surprised if Panamá did not qualify for the World Cup and would not be surprised if they emerged from the first round in Germany next summer.
¡Viva Panamá! The Red Tide surges onwards!