World Cup 2018 team preview: Panama plays ugly soccer, but has a beautiful story

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group G is Panama.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group G: 2.9%
Odds to advance: 9.1%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.1%
Elo rank: 48
Yahoo Sports power rank: 31

Our writers say: U.S. fans need no reminding Panama is heading to Russia at the expense of the Yanks, thanks to a ghost goal against Costa Rica in that fateful last round of Hex qualifiers. In their first-ever appearance at the World Cup, Los Canaleros favor physicality and force over tactics and finesse. Panama will be no pushover, but it’s difficult seeing anything better than an honorable discharge from the group stage. Ryan Bailey

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Roman Torres eliminated the United States and sent Panama to its first World Cup, then celebrated with a now-famous selfie. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 1st
Best World Cup finish: None
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Finish third in CONCACAF, behind Mexico and Costa Rica, ahead of Honduras and the United States
Schedule: Belgium (Monday, June 18, 11 a.m., FS1), England (Sunday, June 24, 8 a.m., FS1), Tunisia (Thursday, June 28, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group G preview]

Squad

Manager: Hernan Dario Gomez
Captain: Roman Torres (D)
Top players: Jaime Penedo (G), Torres, Anibal Godoy (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: They’ll beat the s— out of you, to put it bluntly. They’ll make a soccer game into something unrecognizable, more a street fight with a ball curiously being kicked around amid it. They’ll foul and provoke you, frustrate you, and then use your frustration against you to catch you on the counter.

Why they’ll lose games: When their kicks and hacks catch air instead of shins, they can be ripped to shreds – see U.S. 4, Panama 0, four days before you know what; or Switzerland 6, Panama 0 in a March friendly. Even on better days, the ceiling seems to be something like a 1-0 loss to Norway, or a 0-0 draw with Norther Ireland. Many of Panama’s prominent players are well past their primes, and have lost a step. They’ll comprise the oldest team in Russia. And teams with more quality than their typical CONCACAF foes will expose them.

How they’ll play: To call what they’ll do against England and Belgium “defensive” is an understatement. The question is what shape they’ll defend in. They primarily played four at the back throughout qualifying, but went three at the back – which is really five at the back – in March, probably in preparation for two far superior opponents.

Projected lineup (4-1-4-1): Jaime Penedo; Adolfo Machado, Felipe Baloy, Roman Torres, Fidel Escobar, Luis Ovalle; Gabriel Gomez; Jose Luis Rodriguez, Armando Cooper, Anibal Godoy, Edgar Barcenas; Blas Perez.

There’s still a chance it’s a 5-4-1. It could also be a 4-4-2 with the pacey Gabriel Torres pairing Perez up top. Torres or Luis Tejada could also replace Perez up top. It’s unclear who of Alberto Quintero and Rodriguez will start wide, but based on recent friendlies, the 19-year-old Rodriguez appears to be the pick.

At the back, Harold Cummings or 37-year-old Felipe Baloy could replace either of the center backs. Michael Murillo is the alternative to Machado – a natural center back – on the right of defense.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: It’s their first time here! OK, not quite unique, but the way they earned their first trip to the grandest stage of all was special. There was the phantom goal. And Torres’ unforgettable winner, which led to the selfie in the picture above. There was an unused substitute racing down the touchline to boot the ball deep into the stands to waste time. And there were … scenes:


Why to root for them: Man, how can you not root for Panama after watching that?

Why to root against them: OK, here’s how you can not root for them: because they play what we kindly refer to as “anti-football.” Oh, and they were in part responsible for eliminating the U.S.

If you’re going to watch one game … Definitely the England game.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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