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Panama: The Next Big Thing in CONCACAF?


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.

Then, a run to the final of the 2005 Gold Cup final as well as good performances in the 2007 event had us believing Panama had arrived and would be dangerous in 2010 World Cup qualifying.

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.

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  1. content

    April 15, 2013 at 2:01 am

    I’ve read several excellent stuff here. Certainly price bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how much effort you set to make such a fantastic informative web site.

  2. Hands of Stone

    July 17, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Gary Stempel is a class act. His Spanish is impeccable. I hope that he leads team Panama over the us team tomorrow. I will fly to Philadelphia tonight for the game, with a sizeable contingent. We’re gonna take over the Linc, baby! Pa-na-ma! Pa-na-ma!

  3. eplnfl

    July 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for the in-depth run down on Panama. Looking forward to the game to say the least. The Concacaf teams outside of Mexico are unkowns to most of us. That is due to overall media attention that soccer has in this country but also to the great attentio that the European teams draw.

    One of the great things about this website and your efforts is your promoting Concacaf football to the general public and trying get and the Euro centric population understand the quality of players over here.

    No informed fan should expect the game tomorrow to be a walk over.

  4. Adam Edg

    July 17, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Panama will be a force in the years to come. Maybe not a traditional Mexico or Costa Rica level threat, but at least on par with Homduras. It is not hard to imagine futbol catching up to baseball in Panama within the next five years or so. Given their raw talent and the cultures of the nations surrounding them, it is easy to picture them contending for a top 3 CONCACAF spot by the 2014-2018 WC qualifiers.
    Given the way Mexico has been as of late, Panama has a shot to do something amazing in terms of the WC qualifiers…

  5. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 17, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Lawerence B, his father is Panamanian even though he grew up exclusively in England so he had a connection to get the management job at San Francisco, a club that usually does well in the Panamanian league.

    He also managed in El Salvador before taking over the full national team job.

  6. Jeff

    July 17, 2009 at 7:00 am

    The team we are playing with in this tournament opens the door for Panama. I understand Bradley is shorthanded but he could have planned better by using those seven extra spots to have a few central and right footed defenders available with Parkhurts and Cherundolo leaving early. Also, Goodson’s injury complicated matters.

    Before the tournament Bradley should have known which guys were going back to Europe and used his extra seven player selections which were a gift from CONCACAF well. Now instead of having extra players we have fewer players than anyone left.

  7. Lawerence R.

    July 17, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Panama having an English coach is fascinating. How exactly did he get the job?

  8. John H

    July 17, 2009 at 6:25 am

    From what I have seen of Panama the last few years, they should be more successful than they are. I know they are a huge disadvantage being in a baseball oriented country, with little in the way of resources, but they have way too much talent to under perform regularly. Recall they got to the Hex in 2005 and bombed out.

    They were unlucky against us in the last two Gold Cups. I’d agree with that for sure. In this tournament they have pressured defenders alot but have shown some poor finishing and lack of killer instinct, as well as some weakness at the back. They will put pressure on our back four for sure, but it is likely we will win because they won’t be able to finish their chances.

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