For several years now we’ve heard pundits proclaim Panama the next big thing in CONCACAF. The Central Americans have certainly teased us: the development of Jorge Dely Valdes and Roberto Brown as legitimate goal scoring threats were indications that the traditional Baseball country was shifting towards being competitive in football.
But it was not to be. Panama was the highest ranked team dumped out of the second round of qualifying by El Salvador, who at the time was the lowest ranked team to advance to the semifinal stage. The upset was devastating for a nation seemingly ready to breakthrough as a CONCACAF power.
Alexandre Guimarães, had been a legendary manager for Costa Rica and was thought to be the right man for Panama. But the failure of Panama to get past what was perceived as a weak Salvadorian team changed a lot of people’s thinking.
But perhaps Panama was simply unlucky to draw El Salvador in that round in hindsight. Nonetheless, Guimarães was sacked and replaced by Gary Stempel, an Englishman who once coached at Milwall and had a Panamanian father.
Stempel is unique: An Englishman that has enjoyed success in Latin America at a time when so few English coaches succeed outside of the country. His performance as manager of San Francisco, a top Panamanian club and with the Panamanian U-20 side got him the job with the full national team. But at the same time his entire football upbringing was in England and his venture to Central America, a decade ago rare for an English coach.
Winning the 2009 Central American Qualifying Tournament for the Gold Cup was a great start for Stempel. Then drawing with Mexico in front of a hostile, unsporting crowd and despite being reduced to nine men was another step in the right direction. Finally, smashing Nicaragua should give Stempel’s men the confidence to compete with the US on Saturday night.
Panama has developed some of the technically gifted midfield players recently that are a trademark of Latin football. But more importantly, Panama tends to be bigger, stronger and more athletic than most Central American teams. This combination has given the US problems in qualifying back in 2004, and of course in the 2005 and 2007 Gold Cups.
Panama’s 2007 quarterfinal performance, in particular was commendable. Given no breaks by the officiating crew, Panama reversed a controversial penalty and sending off with a late goal and poured the pressure on the US despite being a man down. The United States survived and went on to lift the Gold Cup a week later beating Mexico but Panama made a statement.
Pachuca’s Blas Perez is a gifted target man who fits Stempel’s hybrid British-Latin style. Perez is effective in holding up play but also finding space on set pieces. Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson (if healthy) will be keys to marking Perez.
Gabriel Gomez is another player worth watching for Panama. The Portuguese based midfielder is good technically, and plays good long balls from his holding midfield position. José Luis Garcés continues to be a key player in Panama’s midfield and linkup play with the forwards.
Panama’s big win over Nicaragua was a major confidence boost. This tournament particularly the last game gave a good overview of how Stempel’s coaching has helped transform or at least continue the evolution of Panamanian football.
Stempel has been under fire in Panama even though he appears from an outside perspective to be doing an outstanding job. Any question about Stempel’s longevity in the job can be cleared up with a win on Saturday. Obviously that is easier said than done, but it’s certainly possible.