TAMPA, Fla. – Judging by the celebrations on the field you would have thought that they had just won the Gold Cup final.
That’s how much it meant to Panama to beat the United States for the first time in history – on U.S. soil, no less.
“The truth is that Panamanians do not need much to celebrate,” manager Julio Cesar Dely Valdes said in his postgame press conference. “And today it must be an absolute party in the entire country.”
Dely Valdes, whose future at the helm of the team will be determined by its Gold Cup performance, confessed that he predicted a victory over the Americans, who suffered their first group loss in the history of the tournament.
“The day after the Guadeloupe game, the first thing that I said to [the players] is that we were going to win against the United States,” Dely Valdes said. “We were convinced and we had the belief that we could win and it proved itself true here.”
“This is a surprise to all the other people, but not to us,” Panama forward Blas Pérez said. “We work to win matches.”
For the second straight match Panama held on for dear life in the final stages of a match, this time clinging to a 2-1 lead against the USA. It was much the same as what had occurred in the first match against Guadeloupe, with Panama withstanding a late charge to secure a 3-2 win.
“The key was to stay concentrated for 90 minutes,” said Panamanian playmaker Gabriel Gomez. “We knew that the USA is a strong opponent and has good players who can keep you off balance – that’s why they play in the biggest leagues in the world. We had to maintain a high, intense rhythm. We did that and we were able to get the three points.”
While concentration was surely important, taking a commanding two-goal lead didn’t hurt. The strikes in the 19th and 36th minute proved all that Panama needed.
“We were ready and we were efficient on the field when it came time to score,” Pérez said. “Luis [Tejada] had the chance to score on a beautiful play that [Eduardo] Dasent laid to him. And on the penalty, I fought for a ball and never gave up on it.
“We couldn’t give them [the USA] the advantage. If they scored, it would have been a little more difficult. We were able to score two goals first and this advantage was very important for us.”
Following the match US defender Tim Ream said that it was a nudge from Pérez that forced him to lose his balance on the penalty-kick episode, which saw Ream flailing and kicking the attacker instead of the ball. The veteran Panamanian forward was having none of it.
“Frankly, I didn’t touch him,” Pérez said. “I waited for him to get the ball and I beat him to it. He fell asleep a little and it could be he didn’t see me and kicked. It was a clear penalty and I didn’t touch him at all.”
Outside the Panama locker, one player blasted music from his boom box while US players walked by toward their team bus. He was celebrating not only a win over the USA, but also his team’s mathematical qualification to the Gold Cup quarterfinals. The Canaleros will now be dreaming big.
“It‘s on us as a coaching staff to keep our feet on the ground,” Dely Valdes said. “It’s a historic triumph but we haven’t achieved anything yet. It’s just a step forward.
“Today we showed that Panama wants to grow and that Panama is growing and that we can fit into the group of big national teams of this region.”