The Jekyll and Hyde story of Panama's World Cup

The Jekyll and Hyde story of Panama's World Cup

The debutants made a name for themselves in Russia but was it for the right reasons?

Chris Lincoln

Panama reaching the World Cup was an extraordinary achievement in itself, as emphasised by a national holiday being granted in the Central American country when they qualified. But did their performance in Russia leave behind a positive legacy?

No goals scored, ten conceded and eight yellow cards - the three halves that put them out

"There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable." The famous Robert Louis Stevenson quote from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde could be quite apt for some of Panama's football... 

On the face of it, Panama's performance in their three Group G games will probably be remembered for all the wrong reasons. They went into the tournament after raising eyebrows for a physical approach to their friendlies against European sides and they continued to play that way in their World Cup encounters.

England's emphatic five-goal first-half display against the World Cup debutants was somewhat overshadowed by the tactics Panama tried to utilise against their opponents. Grappling and holding in the penalty area that many described as 'wrestling moves' ended up being the major talking point at half-time, despite England racing into a 5-0 lead - two of those five goals came from fouls in the box.

The final Group G table also does not make pretty reading for Panama. Bottom with three defeats, zero points and after conceding eleven goals, which was at least three more than any other side in the competition, Panama did not leave behind much of a foundation to build upon in future tournaments.

Yet the damage was done in a trio of 45 minute periods during their three matches. If you look at the second half of the Belgium defeat, first period of the England encounter and final instalment of the Tunisia face-off, Panama conceded ten goals without netting one of their own. They also picked up eight of their eleven yellow cards during those 135 minutes of football.

Two goals for, one against and what would have contributed to five points - it wasn't all about wrestling

"The moment I choose, I can be rid of Mr Hyde."

Those statistics are remarkably different to the other 45 minute periods during all three matches. Rather than a focus on trying to stop their opponents through physical aggression, Panama actually played some football.

Captain Roman Torres stared down Eden Hazard at the coin toss of their debut World Cup match and that set the tone for the first half of the Belgium encounter. Panama defended with organisation and looked dangerous on the counter-attack. They could have gone into the break ahead but would have been delighted to be holding the Belgian superstars to a 0-0 draw at half-time.

It was a similar story against England after an embarrassing first half performance put the game beyond doubt. Yes, England moved down the gears after the break but Panama looked comfortable on the ball, defended with poise and created a handful of chances as Felipe Baloy made history with their first World Cup goal. Panama drew that half 1-1, conceding through a freak Harry Kane deflection.

They even went one better against Tunisia, taking the lead for the first time in a World Cup encounter and holding that advantage at the break. Perhaps even more remarkable was that Panama got through the entire 45 minutes without a booking.

Build from here

They may have ended up with the worst goal difference, most goals conceded, highest number of cautions and joint lowest scoring record of the 32 teams but Panama will have positive moments to look back on.

Out of all of the teams in the competition, their matches involved the ball being played in the middle third of the pitch on a more regular occurrence than any other side, thus suggesting they were not under as much pressure as final scorelines like 0-3 and 1-6 might suggest.

It must also be remembered that they were drawn against two sides tipped to have a chance of making the final on Sunday 15th July.

For Panama, this competition must leave a legacy. A country flooded with crime and poverty, this was an experience that the thousands of fans and 23 players who travelled to Russia must never forget and ensure they utilise to keep developing football in Panama.