By Guido Bilbao
Panama is preparing for its first World Cup and the country is celebrating. Since 2015, the Copa Airlines fleet has included an aircraft that proudly wears the team colors. The airlines also sponsored the recently released song, “Sube la marea” (“The Tide is Rising”), written and produced by Los Gaitanes and sung by Rubén Blades, Omar Alfanno, Erika Ender, Emilio Regueira y Los Rabanes, Samy and Sandra Sandoval, Osvaldo Ayala, Nando Boom, Kafu Banton, Lilo Sánchez, Alejandro Duncan, Idania Dowman, and Ingrid de Ycaza. The song is an expression of love for a country united under one flag, standing firmly behind its national team. Panama has the challenge of being the rookie in the championship.
Guided by “Bolillo” Gómez –fifth in the global ranking of coaches with the most World Cup matches– Panama will have to fight hard to make it to the second round, win a match, or even just celebrate their first World Cup goal. Although the team is making its debut with no players from any of the prestigious leagues, its powerful strikers could well surprise everyone. And, as we know, surprises are what soccer is all about. Regardless of the outcome, Panamanians are overjoyed at the idea of hearing their national anthem and seeing their flag fly for the first time in a World Cup championship.
Argentines are known for their particular personality: seduced by the possibility of glory, they teeter on the edge of the abyss, in personal relationships, the national economy, and, of course, in soccer. After reaching the final in the last World Cup in Brazil –tying the game in the final minutes only to lose in overtime to Germany– the Argentine team succumbed to a crisis from which not even Lionel Messi, the world’s best player, has been able to lift them. Their passage through the qualifying rounds was turbulent. The team remained on the brink of elimination, changing coaches three times, until their final away match against Ecuador, where they managed to secure a spot in the world championship, only to lose 5-0 to Spain in one of the side’s most embarrassing defeats ever, just weeks before the Cup is scheduled to begin. The team has undergone few changes; it still has many of the same players who made it to the final in Brazil, now in their 30s. The coach has been with the team for less than a year and hasn’t been able to settle into his system of play with highly criticized players like Higuaín, and the notable absence of players like Icardi. With this in mind, most would say that the team has little chance of victory, but we must not forget that it’s times like this, when all seems lost, that seem to bring out the best in Argentina.
Brazil returns to the ring with blood in their eyes: following their resounding failure on home turf four years ago and a shocking 7-1 defeat by Germany, the national “verde-amarela” travels to Russia intent on winning the Cup. Coach Tite rebuilt the Brazilian squad and, in what amounts to a soccer “renaissance,” led them smoothly through their qualifying matches, like a father spending a day in the park with his children. Brazil was the first to qualify for the World Cup (Russia, as the home team, didn’t participate in the qualifying rounds). Following a major reshuffling of players and a change in style, Brazil appears to have returned to its soccer roots. The five-time champion is the only country to have never missed a Cup. With Neymar at its center, the team seems invincible: solid in defense, robust in the middle, and with explosive attackers. It remains to be seen whether they possess the psychological strength to recover from possible upsets at the hands of teams such as Germany. Even so, Brazil remains the great Latin American hope.
Uruguay is a paradigm of soccer democracy: with only four million inhabitants, the country manages to consistently send competitive teams to the World Cup, giving them a reputation as fierce competitors. As an undisputed contender constantly on the verge of historic feats, Uruguay is back again, with new players joining their ultra-elite striker Luis Suárez (Barcelona), midfielder Edinson Cavani (PSG), who mixes youth with experience, and daunting defender Diego Godín (Atlético Madrid). The team looks solid, aware of its strengths and limitations. With a coach who has held the position for years and players who enjoy each other’s company, Uruguay is ready to take on the world. And given that Group A is generally considered the least competitive, the “Charrua Claw” is expected to make its presence felt during the final rounds.
Perú returns to the World Cup for the first time in 35 years after an epic series of qualifying matches that kept fans glued to the television through the final wild-card qualification and elimination of their archrival, Chile. Despite a timid start, Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca –a former Vélez Sarsfield striker– righted his ship and consolidated a knowledgeable team capable of playing a lively game. The side’s star, Paolo Guerrero, the highest scorer in the team’s history, is up front. And when the going gets tough, Perú knows how to fall back and make the match difficult for their opponents. Just ask Messi and Company, who, playing at home in Argentina and needing a victory to qualify, were unable to break the Peruvian defense and nearly failed to qualify. Perú had less luck in the draw, however, and will be facing European powerhouses France and Denmark in their group. The mission is complicated, but not impossible.
The “Aztecs” are once again at the top of their game and back to being the lords and masters of Central American soccer. They sailed through their qualifying matches without a single loss. Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio silenced critics who had opposed hiring a foreign coach by getting results with a young, dynamic team that includes “Chicharito” Hernández, back in the Premier League with England’s West Ham after his time with Manchester United. México has been eliminated in the Round of 16 in the last six World Cups, so their great challenge will be to make it to a fifth match, something they’ve failed to do in a World Cup since México ‘86. And making it past the first phase will be no mean feat since they share a group with the reigning champions, Germany, as well as a Denmark, whose vertical soccer is always challenging, and the perennially enthusiastic Koreans. It is likely that their Game 3 against Denmark will seal their fate.
The coffee nation made a quiet arrival to the Cup, which is always good. The team will be hoping to best their historic fifth place in Brazil. Their camera-shy coach has the full support of Colombian fans, who see him as the person most responsible for bringing out the best in a generation of great players in the last World Cup. This Colombian side seems to possess the right mix of experience and youth, with players from some of the world’s best teams –Cuadrado with Juventus, James with Bayern Munich, and Falcao with Monaco– and a group in which the team stands out as the favorite. James Rodríguez, the team’s leading figure, will have to confirm his star status after winning the Golden Boot in the last Cup. Undaunted by Russia, a big send-off is being organized at the El Campín Stadium in Bogotá, followed by a celebration with popular music, dancing, and lots of fun. After that, it will be time for the competition when we’ll find out once and for all whether, when facing an elite team in critical circumstances, Colombia manages to prevail.
After playing in the World Cup of their dreams in Brazil, where they surprisingly made it into the quarterfinals, Costa Rica is back and ready to prove it was no fluke. Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto, however, is no longer their coach; despite the team’s success, he left with tears in his eyes due to internal fighting. His replacement is Óscar Ramírez, former Alajuelense coach who played in the local league and was a member of the first “Pura Vida” team that competed in the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Costa Rica’s strength starts with their goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, goalkeeper for Real Madrid and one of the best in the world. He’s won three Champions League titles, two Club World Cup titles, three European Super Cup titles, one Spanish league title, and one Copa del Rey title with the Merengue side. Of course, to advance in the World Cup they’ll need some help because they have once again been placed in the “group of death.” But there’s no need for alarm; the same thing happened in Brazil and, against all odds, the Ticos came out ahead of Uruguay, England, and Italy. The fact that no one expects them to make it past the first round works to their advantage; situations like these are exactly what make Costa Rica so dangerous.