Panama may have been the worst team at the World Cup, but as the now viral video of Panamanian television broadcasters crying as Panama’s anthem was played at a World Cup for the first time reminds us, the World Cup is about so much more than winning.
This tournament was a just reward for the government of Panama’s decision, a little more than a decade ago, to pour money into footballing infrastructure and player development. It was risky for a poor country whose most famous athletic exports continue to be baseball players, but it was one that paid dividends when Panama qualified for the World Cup for the first time last autumn.
In truth, Los Canaleros should have qualified four years ago, only to have the moment stolen from there on the famous Graham Zusi goal in the 89th minute that rescued Mexico from qualifying failure and broke Panamanian hearts.
The Panama 2014 cycle team, led by the innovative Dely Valdéz brothers, was largely led by the same generation of players we saw in Russia, except it was younger, more dynamic in attack and sturdier in defense. Four years later, four years older, and now under the leadership of the Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez, this incarnation of Panama was less equipped to do damage at the World Cup, led by a generation all on the wrong side of thirty. They qualified anyway, finishing third in CONCACAF, and revelled in a deserved moment in the sun in Russia, even if it arrived four years too late.
Nevertheless, Los Canaleros did provide a glimpse of the country’s bright footballing future in Russia, proof that all the national investment in development is beginning to pay off.
In attacking midfielder/winger Edgar Bárcenas, the world saw the new Panama: still incredibly athletic and physical, but increasingly technical and smart off the ball.
Bárcenas looked menacing on the break in games against Belgium and Tunisia, and scored on a beautiful curled shot from distance against the Eagles of Carthage, only for it to be called off for offsides. He also looked dynamic on the ball, deft with his first touch and more than capable of challenging defenders one on one on the blow-by.
Bárcenas is already 24, and at present, seems to be on a sadly familiar path for talented Panamanian midfielders at club level. Like the older Alberto Quintero, the outstanding Panamanian winger who came before him, Bárcenas is playing for clubs that he just might be too good for. He’s a regular at Mexico Ascenso side Tapachula, where last year, he scored ten goals.
But unlike Quintero, Bárcenas still has plenty of time to turn that around. The key for Bárcenas is consistency: matching his prodigious production for Panama with his play at club level.
Given his performances throughout qualifying and at the World Cup, young Edgar seems to be trending in that direction. More importantly, he has the tools in make a move to Europe, where he could truly grow into a more complete two-way player. Already a formidable incutter, especially on his preferred right foot, his speed presents coverage problems for defenses that have to key on playmaking central mids. And Bárcenas has the pace to beat you directly down the wing too, even if his crossing is a work in progress. Where he gets lost is knowing when to bomb forward and when to avoid taking chances, understanding space defensively so that he isn’t caught too far forward to track back.
Our take? A move to Spain’s second division or France would make the most sense. Defense is required at a higher level than in Mexico in those competitions, but creativity and speed are still wonderful commodities.
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