Following Panama’s qualification for Russia 2018, head coach Hernan Darío Gomez, has hailed his team of World Cup first-timers as ‘champions.’ Gomez puts them in the same mould as the country’s legendary boxer Roberto Duran.
Gomez was speaking to RT following Friday's World Cup Final Draw held at the State Kremlin Palace, Moscow, where Panama were drawn in Group G alongside Belgium, Tunisia and England.
Panama is primarily a boxing nation and Durán, known as ‘Manos de Piedra’ (‘Hands of Stone’), is undoubtedly the Central American nation’s most recognisable sporting export. His career in the ring spanning five decades, the precocious Panamanian won world titles in four weight classes. An arena named in his honor stands in Panama City, the country's capital.
While giving due respect to Duran’s dazzling achievements, Panama manager Gomez likened his side’s achievement of qualifying for the country’s maiden World Cup campaign to the glory tasted by the great Duran.
“We are very happy. I am thinking of the players, because they are happy too because we are here to learn,” Gomez said. “Duran is a champion and we are happy because we qualify for the first time and we have to respect him. The whole team are champions!”
Duran, 66, was ecstatic when ‘Los Canaleros’ secured victory over neighbours Costa Rica in October. They secured qualification via a Roman Torres goal, making the score 2-1 with just four minutes of normal time remaining.
“My dream to see my team play in the World Cup is to come true. Thank you my team. Viva Panama and see you in Russia!” a jubilant Duran tweeted.
Mi sueño de ver jugar a mi selección en un Mundial se a hecho realidad. Gracias mi Sele. Que viva Panamá y nos vemos en Rusia! pic.twitter.com/zngkyDPxce
— Roberto Durán (@robertoduranbox) October 11, 2017
The country’s first-ever World Cup game is a tricky one: against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium in Sochi, the most southerly of the World Cup host cities, on June 18. They will then play England in Nizhny Novgorod on June 24 before rounding off their group stage games against Tunisia in Saransk on June 28.
Ordinary Panamanians were given an extra reason to cheer their World Cup qualification, when president Juan Carlos Varela declared a national holiday in celebration.