Panama feeling pressure as it looks to avoid reliving 2014 final day nightmare

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Mike Ehrmann
A fight with the country's press demonstrates that the World Cup hopeful is beginning to fear a repeat of last cycle's final day

The anger went viral. The undercurrent is what matters.

The video of veteran Panama defender Felipe Baloy insulting a reporter after a 4-0 loss to the United States and a heated news conference conversation between coach Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez and a different journalist made headlines throughout the region Friday.

Panama 8/13 to beat Costa Rica

The anger is there, though, because Panama is feeling the pressure. Four years ago Panama was in this same spot, looking like it was headed for the playoff. But a late collapse against the U.S. on the final matchday sent Mexico into the playoff and postponed Panama's dreams.

This is a country that has never qualified for the World Cup, and if it doesn't do it 2018, it will have to scrap what it's doing and start all over. The top players are familiar to fans in CONCACAF because of their longevity. The 36-year-old Baloy has been a centerpiece in Panama's back line for more than a decade. Forward Blas Perez, also 36, made his international debut the same year as Baloy. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, another member of the 36 club, wasn't long behind.

There are five Panama players in the current squad with more than 100 caps — Baloy will get there shortly and Armando Cooper could hit the mark next year. The team's nine most-capped players are active, and Amilcar Henriquez would make a 10th were it not for his shocking murder. With respect to pioneers like Luis Ernesto Tapia, Rommel Fernandez and the Dely Valdes brothers, this is the first generation of Panama players who, together, have shown their quality. These men have taken Panama from purely a baseball country to one that can compete on the international level.

They know this is their last chance. So too do their countrymen, including those in the media. Panama's press is unlike that of the U.S., where journalists keep an objective perspective and stay withdrawn from the team, or Mexico, where media members see criticizing the team as a full-time occupation. In Panama, the press is looking to be the representative of the population at large.

Panama is a small country, and everyone there — journalist, electrician or professor — wants to make the World Cup for the first time. When things are going well, everyone is happy. When it's going poorly, well, you saw what happens.

That's why Gomez freezing out the press, announcing a day after the loss in Orlando, Florida, that he and his team would no longer be speaking with reporters, was still a bit jarring, even if it wasn't stunning. It prompted Panama daily Mi Diario to run the headline "The enemy is on the field," seemingly trying to remind Gomez and his men where the focus needs to be.

It is indeed the pitch of the Estadio Rommel Fernandez where everything will be decided. Panama is yet to lose there in the Hexagonal, generally a formula that would send the nation to the World Cup. Panama has, however, settled for too many draws. Holding Costa Rica to a point should be enough to get into the playoff, with a Honduras win over Mexico and a U.S. stumble against Trinidad & Tobago the only scenario that would see Panama bumped. Of course, Panama did nearly enough last time and ended up staying at home.

You could say the Ticos will do everything in their power to keep Panama from qualifying, but you would be wrong. The team's biggest star, Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, along with defenders Kendall Waston, Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa, have returned to their clubs after locking up World Cup qualification in dramatic fashion last week.

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That's good news for the home side. Panama's 3-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago at home to close the September window was a high point. Then, nearly the same lineup ran into a buzzsaw in the form of the Americans. Now the seeds of doubt are creeping in.

The specter of 2014 is looming in the shadows. The pressure is on — and it will be if Panama moves into the playoff as well. No matter what the press writes or what questions are asked after, Gomez and Co. must perform Tuesday or the chapter on this generation of Panama's players will have an unhappy ending.

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