The level of excitement was palpable as the Panama national team emerged from the tunnel and onto the pristine field of Fisht Stadium in Sochi. The former Olympic stadium on the shore of the Black Sea, was awash with the colors of their traveling supporters, anxiously anticipating Panama’s World Cup debut.
And there, standing and singing the national anthem was Anibal Godoy, gearing up for the most important game of his life, eight years after making his first appearance for his country. It will be a moment he’ll always remember, in a game he’ll soon want to forget.
Panama, the plucky Concacaf qualifiers, entered the tournament ranked No. 55 in the world, and little was expected of them against Belgium, No. 3 in the world and one of a handful of favorites to lift the coveted World Cup trophy. Los Canaleros stood tall in the first half, frustrating Belgium with their well-organized defense, but they eventually capitulated, giving up three second-half goals to lose their Group G opener.
Godoy played the entire 90 minutes for Panama, featuring in the midfield line that shielded the back four. He was primarily tasked with disrupting the play of Belgium’s midfield orchestrator Kevin De Bruyne, and for spells of the game, the San Jose Earthquakes star was able to do just that.
In the first half, Godoy did his best to slow down the Belgium attackers and guide the team in transition. He had few opportunities to do so, however, as the favorites controlled the majority of possession. On those rare occasions that Godoy did get on the ball, his passes were inconsistent, and Panama rarely threatened past the center line.
The two teams walked off the field at halftime still scoreless, with Belgium clearly frustrated and Panama looking relieved. A result on their World Cup debut, and a chance to shake up their group, was only 45 minutes away.
But Belgium came out in the second half and dominated the game. Dries Mertens scored a wonder-goal in the 47th minute, stunning the Panamanians and leaving the underdogs needing an inspiring comeback to recover. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t find it.
Having to the chase the game while not conceding a second goal, Godoy was forced to take a yellow card on a shirt pull of Eden Hazard, just outside the area. Nothing came of the free kick, but the caution was the fifth of the game for Panama and the players had to be careful moving forward to not see anyone sent off.
Belgium, up a goal and clearly in the driver’s seat, began to assert itself in the game. Godoy and his teammates did their best to stay organized in defense, but they had to take more chances going forward in search of an equalizer. It was a necessity, but the shift in approach gave Belgium the openings it needed to put the game away.
Romelu Lukaku, Belgium’s all-time leading goal scorer, added two more to his ledger in the span of six minutes, putting the favorites up 3-0 and taking any remaining wind in Panama’s sails away. And though the result was never in doubt, the World Cup debutantes kept their decorum and played is safe to the final whistle.
Godoy and the rest of the Panama squad, including unused substitute Harold Cummings, will require something from their next Group G game, against England on this Sunday, if they are to do the miraculous and advance to the knockout round of the tournament. The result against Belgium, a learning lesson for Panama, made it clear that it will be a tall task.