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Unlikely captain, unlikely team: Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres and Panama at the World Cup

Oct 15, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC defender Roman Torres (29) wins a header over FC Dallas forward Tesho Akindele (13) during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The hulking frame of Seattle Sounders FC Panamanian centerback Roman Torres will look somewhat out of place at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

At 218 pounds, Torres is the heaviest player in Russia for the tournament. Still, the unlikely defender who became a national hero has hopes that his country can make the most of its first-ever trip to the World Cup finals in a group that includes Belgium, England and Tunisia.

Torres has more than earned his iconic place in Panama’s soccer history.

After scoring the game-winning goal against Costa Rica on the final day of the Concacaf Hexagonal (which simultaneously doomed the United States men’s national team to watch the World Cup from the couch), Torres went from centerback to centerpiece of an extravagant parade as the nation of four million celebrated its first-ever trip to the World Cup.

“It means a lot to represent my country at the World Cup,” Torres told SoundersFC.com ahead of the tournament. “It’s something historic that Panama classified for the World Cup for the first time. The truth is it’s a proud moment for me as a Panamanian to represent my country. I’m enjoying it because it’s something that we’ve been searching for for many years. I thank God for the possibility of me going to the World Cup.”

Despite Torres’ giant figure, he and his country will play David to a series of Goliaths in the tournament. At an estimated total team market value of $10.61 million according to Statistica, Panama is by far the least expensive team in Russia, compared to the squad’s groupmates: the $1.02 billion of England, the $875.5 million of Belgium or even the $67.5 million of Tunisia.

“It’s an important group in front of us,” said Torres. “We’re preparing physically and mentally to prepare for these other national teams, and the truth is Belgium, England and Tunisia have important players, and we have to have maximum concentration to be an organized and compact team.”

Still, in a broad sense, Torres and Panama may consider the honor of fighting its way through the Concacaf qualifiers a high enough honor for the tiny nation’s soccer history.

Torres said the adulation shown by his countrymen inspired him and his teammates.

“Today, I’m the role model of many kids,” Torres said. “Many kids want to be like me or some other players on the national team. When I go out in the street, many people want to talk to me, want to take a photo, and it’s very motivating.”

Panama will be one of the most MLS-stocked rosters at the World Cup. Harold Cummings and Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Fidel Escobar and Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls) and Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo) will join Torres on Hernan Dario Gomez’ 23-man squad.

With its opening match Monday against Belgium, considered by some a dark horse to make a deep run in the tournament, followed by a second match June 24 against a revitalized England side, Panama may be playing for pride by the time it squares up against Tunisia.

Still, the magic of the World Cup allows for even the unlikeliest of countries to have a day in the sun. If Panama can manage a draw against one of the two tougher teams in its group and upset a talented Tunisian side, which has seven French-born players competing on its behalf, Panama may yet write itself a little bit deeper into the World Cup history books on the sunny fields of Russia.

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