ORLANDO: Nearly three years after Panama agonizingly saw qualification for the World Cup slip out of their grasp in injury time in their final game, the feeling of hurt still hasn’t gone.
Indeed, according to veteran defender Felipe Baloy, that experience, which cost the team a first ever appearance on the biggest stage, is still very much an open wound.
“That was a very bitter experience. And lot of Panamanians can’t forget it. But the important thing is that we as players have the desire to turn it around and get to the next World Cup,” he told reporters ahead of Monday’s Copa America Centenario game against Bolivia.
“That is not only my dream, that is my passion. Get to the World Cup,” he said.
Panama were 2-1 up against the United States heading into injury time with a win enough to secure them fourth place in CONCACAF qualifying and a play-off against Oceania’s New Zealand for a place in Brazil.
But dramatically, the US scored twice in injury time meaning that Mexico grabbed fourth spot, beat the Kiwis and went on to reach the second round in Brazil.
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez, a Colombian who took over after that campaign in 2014, has clearly used the lingering sense of hurt as motivation for his players.
“It is good to hear that from Felipe because that is the mentality I want Panama to have, for us the ultimate goal is to get to the World Cup in Russia.
“These are thing we are working on. Mentally it is about fighting for you goals and the goal is to get to a World Cup, to take that next step,” he said.
At this Copa America, Panama have been drawn in a tough group which includes defending champions Chile and World Cup runners-up Argentina.
Not surprising then, that with progress to the knockout stage a long-shot for the Central Americans, the focus is on using the tournament to get valuable experience for the push to get to Russia 2018.
Panama has grown as a nation within CONCACAF and their days as a minnow are clearly over.
‘Los Canaleros’ have reached the last four in their three most recent CONCACAF Gold Cup campaigns, losing 1-0 to the United States in the 2013 finals.
“We are up against opponents here who are very experienced and with great history – Argentina and Chile are two of the best in the world, so they will show us if our work is effective or not for our goal. But in this tournament, we will try and get as far as we can,” said Gomez, who added that he would prefer to face an Argentina with Lionel Messi in the line-up.
“To be honest, the players would be sad if Messi didn’t play, because we came here for that. We want the full Argentina because it’s great to play against opponents like that – that’s why we consider this a historic tournament for us,” he said.