Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Gomez Aims to Get Drunk on Panama Success

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Gomez Aims to Get Drunk on Panama Success

Article excerpt

Byline: belgium v panama (Today, 4pm, Sochi, BBC1) Dan Kilpatrick in Sochi

PANAMA coach Hernan Gomez is familiar with early exits at the World Cup -- and he was happy to raise the stakes if his side upset the odds and qualify from a group containing England, Tunisia and their opponents today, Belgium.

"I'll drink two bottles of vodka if we qualify from the group," joked Gomez, only the fourth man to lead at least three nations at a World Cup, having overseen group-stage exits with his native Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002.

Gomez, a national hero in Panama, may be experienced at this level, but his players are not. This is the Central American side's first World Cup and this afternoon's match the biggest in the country's history.

Few, including Gomez himself, give them much hope of troubling the elite and the manager has played down parallels with fellow debutants Iceland, who drew 1-1 against Argentina on Saturday.

"Between Argentina and Iceland, there's not such a big difference as us and Belgium," he said. "The most important thing is to go back to Panama with our heads held high and be proud of the work we've done."

There is good reason for such pragmatism. Panama is hardly a nation famed for producing world-class footballers and their maiden qualification -- a feelgood fairytale and a revenge mission accomplished -- came with just three wins from 10 matches, culminating with a bizarre ghost goal in a 2-1 win against Costa Rica, coupled with the USA's humiliating defeat in Trinidad. In 2014, a lastminute USA goal denied Panama a World Cup play-off place.

Since qualifying, Panama have lost 1-0 to Denmark and Norway, 6-0 to Switzerland and drawn 0-0 with Northern Ireland. The statistics show they have a major problem with scoring. Forwards Bas Perez, who will start as a lone striker against Belgium, and Luis Tejada have a combined 86 international goals -- 43 each -- but a combined age of 73. …

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