Fútbol in Panama, a love still to be cultivated

A year ago, I handed over the flag of Panama to the national football team and asked them to take it to Russia.

Juan Carlos Varela, the President of the Republic of Panama, is visibly proud during the traditional flag handover ceremony for the National Day on November 3. Panama is in fact officially among the 32 national teams of Russia 2018 and the standard-bearer, this year, bears a name that is already synonymous with hero. It was Román Torres, who scored the winning goal in the last decisive match against Costa Rica. He is the Cupid who stopped the hearts of an entire people, plunging them into a passion for fútbol that finally ran rampant.
But that match on October 10 – which prompted Varela to call a national holiday for the following day – is only the culmination of an investment, even an emotional one, in sport that perhaps more than any other can reach every corner of the world, without exception.

In Panama, however, falling in love was not lightning fast and it took years for fútbol to take root. Let’s start with the technical-organizational aspect. It was April 4, 1976 when Panama made its debut in the World Cup qualifiers. The results are decent but the disorganization is still evident, football is declined in amateur level district championships and the players ready for the national team can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The first real turning point, as well as the first step towards professionalism, took place on 13 January 1988 with the establishment of ANAPROF, by an Italian entrepreneur passionate about football, Giancarlo Gronchi. Ancestor of today’s Liga Panameña de Fútbol, ANAPROF is the first professional national league that will last over time after the various failed attempts between the two world wars. We are at the end of General Noriega’s dictatorship and the country is facing a disastrous economic situation. The conditions for the development of sport are very bad, but football is a mass phenomenon and, as such, it is advancing. Growth, however, proceeded slowly, in the absence of a long-term project by FEPAFUT, the local federation active since 1937.

We then rely on improvisation, but the basics are missing, first and foremost technical.

It is individuals, such as the Uruguayan, who act and make improvements Miguel Mansilla – a life spent teaching soccer in Panama – and above all Gary Stempel, master of Fútbol and an all-round educator who draws a line between a before and after in Central American Republic football.
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, the Panamanian coach born and raised in England reveals the difficult conditions encountered upon his arrival. There was little support: there was often a lack of equipment, sometimes even balls, and it was not uncommon for players to train on baseball fields or for footballers to wear broken shoes, which lacked laces or cleats. Among other things, they all made huge financial sacrifices to train, because they did not receive any reimbursement for the trip.

Sometimes we had to get 7-8 players into a car to take them to training. Everything was very wild.

These, according to Stempel, ” are the classic conditions of a non-‘futbolizado’ country” – a wonderful Spanish term to describe a football-educated country – that make progress complicated even from a technical point of view. It is said, in fact, that the national team coaches also had to think about the technical training of the players, some unable to control a ball.

But things changed in the late 1990s. Stempel brings with him a different approach from Europe: it starts from the foundations, from youth training. Numerous football schools were born, but one in particular, managed by Stempel himself, showed the way: the 2000 Project, which later converted into a real professional club that has now disappeared, Chepo FC. A center that revolutionized the training methods of young players and churned out some of the talents that today make up the national team, including the aforementioned Román Torres.
Stempel did not stop at the clubs, he also put his hand to the minor national selections and led Panama for the first time to a World Cup (the U20 one in 2003), another crucial event for the Isthmian country. From that moment on, the senior national team, fueled by the excellent work of the youth representatives, embarked on a path made up of many falls but constant progress. A Central American Championship won in 2009 and two Gold Cup finals (2005 and 2013) are stages that certify Panama’s entry into the football that counts.

But something doesn’t add up: the conditions are better, but people still struggle to fall in love with local football, whose development does not go hand in hand with that of the national team.

The country’s football idols, to whom much of the public’s interest is directed, play abroad. And the rise of the Selección, in fact, is almost entirely attributable to the golden generation of Panamanian football, which is not surprisingly forged outside. The various Román and Gabriel Torres, Tejada, Blas Pérez and Gabriel Gómez completed their training mainly between MLS and Colombia, the state from which Panama separated on November 5, 1903.
It is from nearby Colombia, whose technical school is among the most renowned in South America, that the current CT comes Hernán Darío Gómez, in his third World Cup qualification with three different national teams. “El Bolillo” has the task of inculcating greater discipline in a population of footballers who, to quote Stempel’s words again, “He has the perfect biotype for this sport: the Panamanian is tall, strong, aggressive, fast.”

Returning to the local championship, therefore, the technical and physical qualities are not lacking. The infrastructure is improving, but this is where the sentimental aspect comes into play. The passion is present, but it is limited and limited to the areas of the capital and other historically footballing cities such as Colón, where the talent of Julio Cesar Dely Valdés, former Cagliari striker and now coach of the Málaga youth team, was born. To act as a counterweight to the duopoly of European giants such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, which together with the national team grab a large part of the support, the Panamanian football icon reveals his proposal to MondoFutbol:

There should be one team for each city, except for the capital which can have 2-3, because then each city could identify with its own team.

An interesting idea echoed by Stempel: “Everything has to start with the clubs. From your first love when you grow up as a fan, from your first identity, with its colors, friends, neighborhood, streets. Everything has to start here. The biggest effort that needs to be made is to try to strengthen the bond with the clubs, to create identity and passion for the clubs, which must have their own stadium and their own fan base. The development of football in any country must start from here and not from the national team.” The stadium is, for Stempel, the fundamental junction:

It gives you that identity that we’re talking about, and if it’s built in the neighborhood that represents the club, people will feel a lot more identified.

Yet two semi-finalists in the first edition of the Liga CONCACAF and a team in the round of 16 of the continental Champions League dominated by the US, Mexican and Costa Rican giants are good results, which show that the level of Panamanian football is not to be despised. Despite this, it lacks that following that would make the leap in quality.

Currently, the attendance at the stadiums is almost zero: just think that for the match against Costa Rica at the Rommel Fernández Stadium – dedicated to the homonymous character, Panama’s first great footballer – about 30 thousand fans were present, while all the matches of the following championship day, together, did not host more than 2000 units.
The national team, as mentioned, continues to represent the center of popular interest, in a hierarchy that does not respect the growth path of any football movement, as he tells us Carlos Martáns, Vice-President Second of the FEPAFUT and Advisor to the Presidency of the Tauro FC, one of the most successful clubs in the country, founded by the aforementioned Giancarlo Gronchi. “In Panama the football pyramid is upside down, the national team comes first, but we are working hard to channel the interest towards the local league as well.

At the end of the day, Panamanian football lacks fans, because otherwise we have very good sponsors, private companies support us and the federation does its part by trying to sell the entire product of national football.

And in this regard, in order to direct people’s love towards Panamanian clubs, the same clubs, assisted by the federation, are implementing various projects for children between 13 and 18 years old, Because it’s the age group when young people start to decide who they want to be,” says Martáns, who adds: Right now the most active program is a pilot project that Tauro FC is carrying out, going with the players to every neighborhood and every high school in the area to which the club belongs (Pedregal Regiment, Panama District, editor’s note).

Two meetings a month with young people to invite them to go to the matches and make them feel part of the Tauro.

Essentially, We need to create a football culture that teaches people to go to the stadium every Sunday, regardless of the result, and this is the right time to act.” concludes Martáns, confident that the emotional wave due to the qualification for the World Cup in Russia will be able to transform the love and passion for the Fútbol of the people of Panama in a stable and lasting love.

We would like to thank Carlos Figueroa (coordinator of the sports section of TVN) and Nino Mangravita (commentator for Cable Onda Sports COSFC) for their collaboration.

Cover photo and Román Torres ©univision.com
Photo Gary Stempel ©thefootballtimes.com
Panama National Team ©photo fepafut.com
LaPresse fan photos ©