PHILADELPHIA — For a while there, it seemed as if Panama’s third-place match against the United States on Saturday afternoon may never happen.
Just a day earlier, players and coaches had gathered for an afternoon training session at PPL park — and had spent the entire first half of it playing an impromptu game of kickball. It was an exercise in relaxation, just two days removed from what will likely go down as one of the most painful losses in the country’s soccer history: a 2-1 loss to Mexico marred by what most, including CONCACAF itself, considered to be a series of bizarre officiating errors.
At one point in Friday’s training session, a group of Panamanian players swarmed an imaginary referee, playfully alluding to the midweek chaos. Light-hearted fun for sure, play acting just hours after what Panama head coach Hernan Dario Gomez had called a “stain on football,” one which had him considering retirement.
In the days that followed Wednesday’s match, Panamanian players and coaches talked about not even wanting to play Saturday’s third-place game. So how’d they do it? How’d they wipe the slate clean in preparation for Sunday’s penalty kick shootout victory over the USA in Chester? After the match, a joyful Gomez reflected on the turnaround.
“For us it was important to get this result after the Mexico match. I think I want to point out the work of the president of our federation – he’s an intelligent person, a person who thinks things through before acting, and he managed to put us in a good situation for this match.”
His federation’s president, Pedro Chaluja, was the harshest critic of Wednesday’s result: "What has happened with the officiating is lamentable and very questionable," he said during a news conference on Friday. "We perceive that this match was manipulated, and not by the Mexican federation, but there are interested third parties."
But Chaluja had a different message for the Panamanian players, one of perseverance.
"After the game against Mexico some of the directors of the federation came down, helped us, protected the group and spoke to us as leaders of the group,” Gomez said. “That was important as well as far as refocusing the team. In the end it’s a third-place result that’s very honorable for us. Well won, well disputed and deserved.
“I want to point out that this team played three games, 120 minutes, in this quick sequence of days. Coming in, we knew it was going to be difficult, but we still pulled it off, we had some clear ideas and ended up with the victory. It was an important series of events for us.”
Saturday’s victory, surely, means something to Gomez’ side. During the coach's press conference, the sound of his players singing and dancing in the locker room next door emanated from behind him. But does the result actually serve to wash away the taste of Wednesday’s defeat out of their collective mouths? Or does it leave Gomez — who had just knocked off a confederation giant — dreaming of what could’ve been in the final.
"The pain is still there,” the coach conceded to MLSsoccer.com. "Sometimes moral victories aren’t – well, we were just prepared to lift the trophy here.”
With World Cup qualifying just around the corner, though, Gomez and his men will have little time to reflect on what could have been. A much bigger — and tougher — goal awaits.
"In Panama, I’ve always told my friends and family that I’d give up everything to qualify for the World Cup,” Gomez concluded. "I’d give up this Gold Cup, every other result for a World Cup berth. I stand by that. My idea is still to take the group to a World Cup and I stand by that."