MOSCOW: Panama earned its first ever World Cup berth and couldn’t wait to begin its adventure on soccer’s biggest stage.
Then the team drew Belgium for its opening match.
The Group G game in Sochi on Monday could be rather lopsided because Belgium, at least on paper, should be a contender for the title. The Red Devils have fallen short of expectations the last four years: Belgium lost in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup and the European Championship two years later.
Panama, meanwhile, has never beaten a European team in nine previous meetings.
The long odds have not tempered the excitement surrounding Panama’s journey to Russia, and the nation has proudly supported the team’s achievement in simply qualifying for the World Cup. The task Monday may be daunting, but memorable for an entire country.
“History is going to be made for the first time when we listen to our national anthem at a World Cup,” Panama captain Roman Torres said. “Many people are going to cry. I think I’m going to be one of those people, too, because of the emotion and to feel the significance of listening to the national anthem at a World Cup.”
Belgium goes into the match with questions about its veteran lineup because of injuries to defenders Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany.
Vermaelen was ruled out against Panama by coach Roberto Martinez with a hamstring injury, and Kompany was expected to be a late decision because of a groin injury. He also could miss the game against Panama but return later in group play.
The match is at 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT; 1500 GMT) at Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi.—AP