There will not be many better stories in football than the story of Panama qualifying to compete at Russia 2018, making their first ever World Cup finals. They are currently ranked 49th in the world, but despite that they will be competing as one of the 32 teams heading to Russia in the summer of 2018.
Panama began life trying to qualify for the World Cup of 1978, which took place in Argentina but they have failed every single time until this World Cup. After 40 years of trying, the nation finally has success and will be heading to the competition full of optimism that they can compete with some of the best in the world.
We nearly saw Panama at the 2014 World Cup and only a dramatic turnaround in a game against the USA prevented them from being inches away from qualification. They went into stoppage time leading that game 2-1, but ended the game losing 3-2 and that ended all hopes of them qualifying that time around.
If anything, although that was a huge disappointment at the time, that experience will have made Panama stronger and their squad for this qualification round had many players in who tasted the disappointment in 2014. Those players have come together and found a way to get their country into the 2018 World Cup, and those back home in Panama are going to be eternally grateful to them for the opportunity that is coming their way.
Just like in 2014, Panama played out a dramatic final game, although this time they were on the end of the right result and one that resulted in qualification for them. At half time they found themselves 1-0 down against Costa Rica, a score line that was not good enough for them to qualify. However, spurred on by a huge crowd in Panama City they found a way to win in the second half. Goals from one of their star strikers Blas Perez and Roman Torres gave them the win and a place at Russia 2018.
Football in Panama has been on the rise but qualification for the 2018 World Cup will take that to a whole new level. Players will have the opportunity to play on the biggest stage of them all and despite heading to the tournament as huge underdogs, they will certainly give it their best shot when they arrive.
This qualification is also going to be brilliant for the youngsters of Panama, who will have local players they can look up to as heroes. They will see players like Blas Perez and Luis Tejada go up against some of the biggest stars in the world, and the youngsters in Panama will want to follow in their footsteps, creating a new generation of talent.
By reaching Russia 2018, the Panama football team have performed brilliantly on the pitch but the impact this has on their country will stretch much further than just a football field. Youngsters from all over Panama will be glued to the television as they watch and dream about replicating what the current crop of Panama players have been able to achieve.