Mexico hardly thinks about Panama. But the same can't be said in reverse. Many Panamanians consider El Tri the team's biggest rival, even over other Central American nations, and there's a real feeling of dislike from the Central American nation.
Players haven't held back ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier in Mexico City. Center back Adolfo Machado, perhaps frustrated after he had to take a looping path to join up with the team because of Hurricane Harvey hitting his home side the Houston Dynamo, used an idiom to describe that Mexico thinks it's God's gift to soccer.
"The Mexicans are living in the past. They believe they're the last Coca-Cola in the desert," Machado told RPCTV. "They've got to understand that all that has changed. It's all changed. Panama has grown a lot. But I think it's good, it's good that Panama has less pressure and they're thinking we're a little team because there's a God in the sky and we've got faith that the day of the game we're going to get a good result."
The bad blood involves far more than simply frustration at how Mexico sometimes comports itself. Panama fans will still mention Mark Geiger's poor officiating in the 2015 Gold Cup when two late penalties saw El Tri win the match 2-1 and Panama's players held up a banner comparing CONCACAF to a band of thieves after the contest. More painful still was the 2014 Hex where Panama fell just short of making the playoff and possibly its first-ever World Cup.
That Graham Zusi goal in the dying moments of the Caneleros' contest against the U.S. on the final matchday might seem like the most frustrating moment, but Panama was just moments away from a point in the Estadio Azteca the round before when Raul Jimenez lashed an overhead kick past Jaime Penedo to give El Tri all three points. It's a goal that one tabloid in Panama reacted to by splashing English-language profanity across its front page, a decision as revealing as it was puzzling. That was the Central Americans' chance.
"I think a lot of people remember the game against the United States from that round, but as a manager I remember the game against Mexico for us," Julio Dely Valdez, who was coaching Panama at the time, said earlier this week. "That goal from Jimenez in the last minutes, the bicycle kick, practically put us out"
Machado may be sounding off out of frustration, but he's not wrong about countries outside of North America closing the gap on CONCACAF's giants. In fact, while Panama is still looking for its first qualifying victory over Mexico, it has managed to hold El Tri to a scoreless draw in the previous two contests in Panama City.
Some of that comes down to the tactical plan put onto the field by coach Hernan "Bolillo" Gomez. The 61-year-old knows Juan Carlos Osorio well, stretching back to matchups between the two in the Colombian domestic league. Right now, Panama is in prime position to make the playoff, but that could set up yet more hearbreak for a country that desperately wants to make it to the World Cup - and would consider it a point of pride to do so before it expands. To do that, it may have to do something its never done before - beat Mexico in the Azteca.