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From zero to World Cup qualification: the history of football in Panama

One year ago I gave the Panama flag to the National Team, asking them to bring it to Russia: mission accomplished.

Juan Carlos Varela, president of the Republic of Panama, is visibly proud while delivering the country’s flag according to the ritual of Panama national day, on November 3rd. A few days before, the National Team officially had secured a place at Russia 2018, their first ever World Cup and, for the occasion, the standard bearer is none other than Román Torres, a name that is already synonymous with hero — in fact, it was Torres who scored the 88th-minute decider in a 2-1 win against Costa Rica that sent Panama wild.
But that memorable match played on 10 October 2017 (Varela would declare the next day to be public holiday) was just the peak of a process involving an economic and emotional investment in a sport that, like anything else, can reach any corner in the world, with no exceptions.

Yet, it wasn’t love at first sight between football and Panamanian people, and it actually took many years before the sport took root.
Panama made their debut in a World Cup qualifier on April 4th, 1976 — in spite of getting decent results, disorganisation was still evident to the extent that, of all the players taking part in some amateur leagues around the country, the footballers ready to actually join the National Team could be counted on one hand.
The first step towards professionalism was taken in January 1988, as ANAPROF was founded by a group of football passionates, including Italian entrepreneur Giancarlo Gronchi. That marked a turning point for the development of football in Panama, as ANAPROF was the ancestor of the current Liga Panameña de Fútbol, as well as the first successful attempt to create a league of national scale in the postwar period.
However, the dictatorship of general Noriega was looming over the whole country, which also had to face a disastrous economic situation. In such context, the growth of football was stable but extremely slow, also due to the lack of long-term planning by FEPAFUT, the local football association founded in 1937.

Such situation led to continuous improvised solutions, but what was lacking were the technical bases.

There were only few individuals who worked to actually improve things, such as Uruguayan Miguel Mansilla, who spent his life teaching football in Panama, and Gary Stempel, an instructor who drew a line between an old and a new era of this sport in the country. The England-born coach talked with MondoFutbol about the difficult conditions he found when he first moved to Panama: “There was no support, we often lacked the teaching material for trainings, sometimes we didn’t even have balls. It wasn’t unusual for us to train in baseball pitches, or for our players to come with broken shoes, with no laces or studs. Everyone made massive economic sacrifices to come to the training ground, as they got no refund for their travels.

We would drive seven or eight players to the training ground in a single car. It was all very wild.

According to Stempel, “such conditions are typical of a country which is not futbolizado’”,  (a precise Spanish word to describe a place with no football education) hindering the growth process — some Panama National Team’s coaches even had to teach their players how to control a ball.

However, things changed in the late 90s. Thanks to his experience in Europe, Stempel brought a different approach: everything had to start from the foundations, that is the youth ranks. Many football academies were founded, with the one managed by Stempel himself leading the way: “Proyecto 2000“, that would later become a proper professional club dissolved in 2016, Chepo FC. The new centre would revolutionise the training methods of young players, producing some of the talents that currently play for the National Team, such as the above mentioned Román Torres.
But Stempel’s contribution wouldn’t be limited to club football, as he became the first manager to lead a Panama national team, the U20 side, to a World Cup in 2003.
Another turning point for the Central American country, as from that moment the senior National Team started to benefit from the growth of the youth sides, starting a path that would be littered with downfalls but also showing constant progress. A win in the 2009 Championship of Central America and two Gold Cup finals in 2005 and 2013 got Panama’s name written in the map of international football.

But in spite of such improvements, something still didn’t make sense — Panamanian people still struggle to fall in love with local football, whose development can’t quite keep up with the National Team’s.

This comes as a consequence of the fact that Panama’s most beloved football idols all play abroad. In fact, the rise of the Selección has been possible thanks to a golden generation of Panamanian players which has been forged outside of the national borders. Footballers like Román Torres, Gabriel Torres, Tejada, Blas Pérez and Gabriel Gómez have all made a name for themselves between USA’s MLS and Colombia, the country from which Panama obtained its independence in 1903.
Colombia was also the birthplace of current Panama manager Hernán Darío Gómez, who was able to reach the World Cup with three different countries. One of “El Bolillo” main tasks is to discipline a group of players who, according to Stempel, “have the perfect genetic features for this sport: the typical Panamanian is tall, strong, aggressive and quick.”

Therefore, the growth of the local championship is not certainly hindered by poor quality or technique anymore. Infrastructures are slowly getting better, but what’s really key is the emotional aspect — footballing passion is confined to the capital and other main cities like Colón, where former Cagliari striker Julio Cesar Dely Valdés was born. Valdés, now a manager in the Malaga youth sector, believes there’s a way to get local people attached to Panamanian sides, and not only to the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona:

There should be a club in every city, apart from the capital which can even have two or three teams, so that any city can identify with its own club,

he told MondoFutbolA game-changing idea, which is echoed by Stempel: “Everything should start from clubs — as a kid, they’re your first love, representing your first football identity, which involves its colours, friends, a neighbourhood… Everything should start from here. The biggest effort we should make is creating a strong bond with clubs, who should have their own stadium and supporters. This is the starting point for the football growth in any country, not the National Team.” The stadium is key to Stempel’s thought:

It gives you an identity, especially if it is built in a neighbourhood representing the club — it helps people identify with it.

Two teams reaching the Liga CONCACAF semifinal, and another playing the CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16, battling it out with other continental giants, show that the level of Panamanial football is gradually raising. Nonetheless, a significant leap is yet to come.

Attendance is extremely poor in every stadium — just think that about 30,000 people attended Panama decisive clash against Costa Rica, while all the games of the next ANAPROF match-day were barely seen by 2,000 supporters altogether.
As already said, the National Team is the main and only centre of interest, evidence of a reverse hierarchy compared to football movements of any other country, as confirmed by FEPAFUT vice-president Carlos Martans: “In Panama there’s an inverted football pyramid: the national team always comes first, but we’re trying to get people interested in the local championship

At the end of the day, I believe that Panamanian football lacks supporters, we have everything else — good sponsors, the support of private companies and a Football Association trying to sell our product.

In this respect, clubs in Panama and FEPAFUT have joined forces to set up training programmes for boys and girls aged 13-18, in an attempt to raise people’s attachment: “This is the age group in which youngsters decide who they want to be,” said Martans. “In this moment, the main initiative is a pilot project developed by Tauro FC, with their footballers going to visit every high school in their neighbourhood.

We organise two monthly meetings with students, in order to invite them to matches and make them feel part of Tauro FC.

In other words, “we need to create a footballing culture that encourages people to go to the stadium every Sunday, regardless of the final score, and this is the right moment to act,” said Martans, who is confident that the country’s first ever World Cup qualification can turn people’s love for football into a stable and long-lasting relationship.


Special thanks to Carlos Figueroa (TVN sports section’s coordinator) and Nino Mangravita (Cable Onda Sports COSFC commentator)

Cover photo and photo of Román Torres ©
Photo of Gary Stempel ©
Photo of Panama National Team ©
Supporters ©LaPresse