Panama players gather in a circle at the end of the group G match between Belgium and Panama at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, Monday, June 18, 2018. Belgium won 3-0. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Panama relieved it lost to Belgium only by 3 goals

June 18, 2018 - 4:14 pm
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — There was a sense of relief for Panama when the last whistle blew at Fisht Stadium in Sochi on Monday.

The team had just lost 3-0 to Belgium in its first-ever World Cup match, and it felt almost like victory.

"Fortunately it didn't happen what everybody thought it would happen, which was for us to lose by six or seven goals," Panama coach Hernan Gomez said. "Panama played with dignity. It wasn't bad."

The 55th-ranked Panamanians put in a valiant effort against the talented Belgians, holding on to a scoreless first-half draw despite conceding many opportunities. It wasn't until the second half that Belgium broke loose with a goal by Dries Mertens and two by Romelu Lukaku.

"The difference between Belgium and Panama in football is greater than three goals," Gomez said. "Nobody likes losing. Some people may say that three goals is a lot, but honestly, three goals against the team we played against today, taking into consideration our experience, this was a normal result, or even abnormal if you consider that it should have been worse."

Veteran midfielder Gabriel Gomez admitted players were worried before the match, but quickly realized it wasn't as bad as they thought it could have been.

"On the field, you realize that in the end they are not that different. They have two legs like you, two eyes like everybody else," he said. "And for a moment we showed that we could fight equally with them."

Coach Gomez said his players should be happy with their performance.

"You shouldn't congratulate someone for losing, but I told my players that they played with dignity and that they did well not to let our opponents put on a rout," he said. "It was 3-0 in the end, but we could have even scored once or twice."

Even the veteran Colombian coach felt the emotions that came with Panama's World Cup debut.

"It was very emotional," he said. "This is my fifth World Cup and it felt like it was the first one. There was happiness, anxiety. It's difficult to overcome that. The match started and the team felt all these emotions. But with time it got better. But it was fantastic, it was a beautiful spectacle for the Panamanians."

The Panamanian crowd was celebrating well before the match and continued even with the team down by three. Many were crying during the national anthem, and players got emotional as well.

"It was very moving to be able to sing the national anthem and represent our country," Panama captain Roman Torres said. "It was historic what we went through here today."

After the game, while Belgium celebrated its victory at one end of the stadium, the Panamanian players huddled at midfield, knelt and prayed. Then they saluted the Panamanian fans who hadn't left the stadium.

Panama's next game is Sunday against England, which defeated Tunisia 2-1 in the other Group G match on Monday.

"Now we already know what it's like to play in the World Cup," Gabriel Gomez said. "We already played our first game, already let out all the emotions."

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