Panama's Golden Generation looking to make more history at Copa America Centenario
Panama have never played in a World Cup and they have never played in Copa America. Their entire competitive international soccer existence, at least at the senior level, has been confined to their region. Be it the CONCACAF Gold Cup or Copa Centroamericana, that was as big of a stage as Panama have ever been on. But that changes this summer.
Los Canaleros are heading to Copa America Centenario. Their third place finish at last year's Gold Cup, followed up by a 4-0 thrashing of Cuba in the Copa America qualifying playoff, landed them in the tournament that now places them in their brightest spotlight yet. And if any Panama team is going to shine, it's this one.
This is the best era of Panamanian soccer ever. They made their first ever Gold Cup final in 2005 as Luis Tejada became the team's newest star. Two years later, they went to the Copa Centroamericana final for the first time ever and in 2009, they won the tournament, earning the title of Central America's finest. But they didn't stop there. They made the semifinals at the 2011 Gold Cup, the final two years later and last year, had their hopes of making it back to the Gold Cup final crushed in the semifinals by some refereeing that was ... interesting, to say the least.
It has been a run of unprecedented success. Tejada is the country's top all-time scorer and Blas Perez is second. The top seven most capped players in the history of the country are all still active, led by Gabriel Gomez's 122. They made it all the way to No. 29 in the FIFA rankings two years ago and still sit at a respectable No. 52 now.
In summation: Panama are good. Or, at least, better than they have ever been.
But this era of Panamanian success is now 11 years old and many of their key players are aging. Tejada is now 34 years old and Perez and captain Felipe Baloy are 35. Even Gabriel Torres, who was supposed to lead the next generation of great Panamanians, but has had his issues, is 27 years old now. The starting 11 in their last World Cup qualifier had an average age of 30.
Basically, Panama are getting up there in age, and every tournament might be the last one for this great group of players.
Panama are hoping that this golden era can extend at least two more years, taking them through World Cup qualifying and, if all goes right, getting them to their first ever World Cup. But that is hardly guaranteed. It's not even likely.
Copa America Centenario is different. They are here. They are in it and they may have a tough group, with Argentina and Chile, but they are one upset away from stunningly making their way to the knockout stages and shining under the brightest light in the country's history. No one is betting on them to do it, but this era of Panamanians has made history for the better part of a decade. Why stop now?
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