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Underdogs Panama aim to emulate Mexico against powerhouse Belgium

The last few minutes of Germany v Mexico were nail-biting for everyone in the room. There was a loud groan when Manuel Neuer went up for the corner kick, given his reputation of being more than a keeper. And when the final whistle went, giving Mexico an unexpected and fully deserved win over the World Cup holders, Panama's president Juan Carlos Varela led the cheering, then shook hands with others in the Sochi bar watching along with him.

Varela's upbeat mood was understandable. Panama know that if Mexico, their group-mates in the North American qualifying zone, can pull off an upset, they must stand a chance against Belgium.

Panama captain Roman Torres poses with a fan during the team's practice session.
Panama captain Roman Torres poses with a fan during the team's practice session.

Strangely, Valera and his entourage apart, there haven't been too many fans sighted in Sochi; one issue is that the town is spread out, and is actually an agglomeration of several mini-centres. But the fans are here, including a healthy contingent of expats from the USA. One of them, Luis Torres, said perhaps they are still a bit jet-lagged. "It took us around 18-20 hours to get here, but by tomorrow, we will be okay to make our presence felt. It's our historic day and we will celebrate."

While the spotlight has been on Iceland -- and deservedly so, as a nation of 300,000 punching far above their weight in international football -- Panama haven't done too badly either: With a population of between 3.5-4 million, they too are making their World Cup debut. And it's been quite a ride.

Belgium are the overwhelming favourites for this match, and outside bets to win the tournament, but the opening fixtures haven't been too kind to favourites: In addition to Germany's defeat, Spain, France, Argentina and Brazil have all been held to draws. And then there's the weather: It's hot and humid in Sochi, the main reason why Brazil have made this their base for the World Cup. Spain and Portugal played out their 3-3 draw here and it's doubtful whether too many northern European teams could have maintained that intensity.

Most people know little about Panama other than the canal and the hat. On Monday, in muggy Sochi, they will hope to become stars in their own right.
Most people know little about Panama other than the canal and the hat. On Monday, in muggy Sochi, they will hope to become stars in their own right.

Panama have already got one break en route to qualifying: Needing to win their final qualifying match, against Costa Rica, to qualify directly for the World Cup, they equalised through a "goal" where the ball didn't cross the line. They went on to score another and book their tickets for Russia.

Actually, the team was fulfilling a vow they had made in April last year. That's when they lost their midfielder Amilcar Henriquez, gunned down in what is being investigated as a crime of personal enmity. Henriquez was, at 33, at the end of his career and had a shot at playing at the World Cup. An incident like that can make or break a team's spirit, and in Panama's case it seemed to have given them a sense of purpose. "It gave us more strength," midfielder Anibal Godoy told ESPN's Jeff Carlisle. "It gave us the goal of getting to the World Cup, to fulfill his dream."

Football isn't Panama's biggest sport; that honour goes to baseball. And perhaps the most famous Panamanian is a boxer: Roberto Duran. In fact most people know little about Panama other than the canal and the hat (which is not really from that country). On Monday, in muggy Sochi, Los Canaleros (even their nickname references the canal) will hope to become stars in their own right.

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