SAN JOSE, Calif. — Since making his debut with the Panama national team back in 2010, a few weeks after his 20th birthday, Aníbal Godoy has become a mainstay in the midfield for a country that never played in a World Cup finals — until now.
They left it until the final day of Concacaf qualifying, but Los Canaleros, with Godoy serving as their engine in the center of the park, earned their place in Russia with a spirited 2-1 performance against Costa Rica. Fellow MLS player Román Torres’ (Seattle) scored a dramatic 88th-minute game-winner.
Panama arrives at the World Cup as the least-regarded team in Group G, which also includes Belgium, England and Tunisia. Given the Canalmen’s less than lofty status as tournament debutantes, Panama will be out to surprise the competition. Godoy, who played a key role throughout the qualifying process, is projected as a starter in Russia.
Since arriving to MLS in the summer of 2015, Godoy has become an instrumental player for the San Jose Earthquakes. Before leaving for Panama’s pre-World Cup training camp, Godoy had played every minute of the Quakes’ season, a trusted pick for head coach Mikael Stahre in the starting XI.
“I must say that he is a quite a multifunctional player,” Stahre told Pro Soccer USA. “He is strong on the ball and can cover a lot of ground, as well as score goals. For me, he is a very good central midfielder.”
With the Earthquakes, Godoy is often paired with another central midfielder, allowing him the freedom to cover more space. At the international level, he often is positioned higher up the field. But at the World Cup, given the level of the opposition in Group G, he’ll likely be asked to play much more defensively.
“He’s not just a No. 6,” Stahre added. “His best position to play is more a No. 8, going more box to box. He has a strong body and a good running capacity. With Panama, he’ll more likely stay back and play more controlling, especially against teams like Belgium and England, where they will need a more defensive game.”
Godoy has played in the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Copa America Centenario — two prestigious tournaments in their own rights — but never at the level of what he can expect at the World Cup. Quakes’ teammate Chris Wondolowski, who made his own World Cup debut for the United States four years ago, feels Godoy has what it takes to handle the pressure of playing in Russia.
“One strength he has that often goes unseen is his composure,” Wondolowski told Pro Soccer USA. “You always see his fight and his tackling, things of that nature, which will be huge for Panama. But he’ll also be that anchor in the midfield, which will be important when you look at who Panama has to play. Belgium, England, and Tunisia are tough opponents, and everyone will need to play well, but with his composure and his passing, he has a chance to shine.”
If Panama is to survive its group and advance, it will have to get past one of the two group favorites: Belgium or England, which both feature some of the best attacking players on the planet. Wondolowski, the second leading scorer in MLS history, trains against Godoy with the Earthquakes on a regular basis, and he knows firsthand what the Panamanian offers as a relentless defender.
“Absolutely, I do,” Wondolowski said with a knowing laugh. “I feel a little sorry for those guys because they are going to have to endure some of those tackles from Godoy. I can tell you, those are not at all fun.”
Whereas Wondolowski is the Quakes’ captain, Godoy is the team’s general, organizing the midfield and, earlier this season, wearing the armband when Wondo was on the bench. Stahre, who is in his first season managing San Jose, has been impressed with what he has seen of the Panamanian, and he was quick to praise his effect on the rest of the team as a positive role model.
“His strongest trait as a leader is how active he is,” Stahre said. “His work rate is really, really good. He is not lazy at all, and he covers a lot of ground for us. He may have a different style when with his teammates in Panama, but for us, he sets a standard with his performances. Of course, he also speaks to and encourages other players, but first comes his hard work.”
The Earthquakes have missed Godoy since he left the team to prepare for the World Cup, and Stahre made it clear that he will welcome him back with open arms when Panama’s run in the tournament comes to an end. In the meantime, the coach will be watching his player intently over these upcoming weeks, hoping to see Godoy apply the many lessons he’s learned at the club level on the international stage.
“He will help Panama a lot, especially with the experience he has gained in MLS,” Stahre said. “In our league, he has to play against some quick and talented number 10s, and now he will step up to some world-class players at the World Cup. I am very interested to see how he handles that with all the attention he will get at the World Cup.”