Although the two of us are technically sitting in a modest saloon car outside a restaurant in a suburb of the Romanian capital Bucharest, Jaime Penedo isn’t actually here, not really. It is a freezing, overcast Sunday morning and the Panama national team goalkeeper is still dressed in his gear after training with Dinamo Bucharest, his current team. But, in his mind’s eye, he’s really thousands of miles away, in Panama City, enveloped by both incredible noise and a self-imposed silence shortly before the greatest moment of his career, and maybe even his life. The moment Panama qualified for their first ever World Cup finals.
“Imagine in those four minutes how my mind was during the match,” he says, staring ahead, both hands gripping the steering wheel. “These last four minutes. I feel that my feet are not on the ground.” Penedo talks a lot about “those four minutes” and the almost zen-like trance he found himself in. He was, perhaps, the only Panamanian to keep any measure of calm during a four minutes that for the country’s four million-strong population felt like four hours.
It was October 10th, at a packed Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City and the final round of CONCACAF qualification for Russia 2018. Panama was playing Costa Rica, who had already qualified. Los Canaleros, The Canal Men, needed to win, and hope an improbable sequence of results went their way to qualify too. The USA, who also had to win, travelled to already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago; Honduras still had a chance too, if they beat Mexico.
Most Panamanians believed a play-off spot was the best they could achieve. But when Costa Rica went 1-0 up, the memories of four years ago returned, when Panama were heading for a play-off place for Brazil 2014, only for the US to score twice in injury time. But a controversial equaliser early in the second half – dubbed the “ghost goal” as it never crossed the line – gave Panama renewed hope. And then, in the 86th minute, Roman Torres scored and the stadium erupted. Trinidad and Tobago, improbably, were beating the US. But now came the hard part. Jaime Penedo had to protect his goal, and his country’s historic first World Cup, for the next four minutes.
“You need to block this from your mind. Boom! Block it,” he recalls, seguing between his native Spanish and the little English he picked up after two season playing for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer. “One is human and you get these feelings but these four minutes … I tried to focus, focus, focus in the present.” The rest is history. The game was won, the US eliminated and a national holiday announced in Panama. Jaimie Penedo is still living with its echo.
Over the next half hour he will laugh and have tears in his eyes talking about what happened on that October night. He’ll bash his steering wheel when it hits him that Panama will be in Friday’s draw. He’ll rub the skin on his arms and announce that he has goosebumps just thinking about those four minutes. “I only smile when I remember that Panama is going to the World Cup,” he says. “For me, it is the biggest dream in my life.”
You’ve had an incredible past six months. How did you come to play for Dinamo Bucharest in Romania?
I came to Romania because I wanted to play in Europe. I always wanted to do it, since I was a kid. And when I had the opportunity at this age, of 35 years old, I decided to take it. I also knew that Europe could offer me a good performance before the World Cup so I could help my team to get a good classification.
How do you find Romanian football – because it can be quite crazy: the rivalries, the fans, the owners especially?
It is different. Very different. I came from MLS and the LA Galaxy. It was a really good time there. I shared changing rooms with Robbie Keane, who was a very good player, captain of the team. Landon Donovan. Also a great player. And we were champions in 2014. But back there in MLS everything is much quieter. In Romania everything is much faster, much more pressure. But I like that. In Romania every match is played with a lot of pressure. Especially in this team. They need to win. The fans of Dinamo, I love them. They are incredible, the way they identify with the team, it is fabulous.
Let’s talk about Panama and the World Cup. Iceland is the smallest country to ever qualify but Panama is perhaps the big underdog. When you started the the campaign what was the genuine hope for Panama in the World Cup?
I fight twelve years for this objective. In my last qualification I take the opportunity to play in the World Cup. It is really a dream for our country, for our people. It is happiness. In a personal way I didn’t want to leave from the national team without giving that happiness to my people. Panama is a small country and football is growing. In CONCACAF there are not many tournaments so there aren’t many chances to be champions. Now I’ve realised that going to the World Cup looks like the key to enter a different dimension. I realised how difficult it will be when we played Wales in the last friendly match. We have to prepare for what’s coming because it will be very difficult.
You’ve played almost 40 World Cup qualifiers. You’ve had many attempts. There must have been many times that you thought you’ll never get to a World Cup…
Never. There were like four qualifications, and 39, 40 matches. And in 2014 we were really near to qualification. It was a really hard blow to be eliminated. This time we were lucky because Trinidad had to win against the US, which was almost impossible. Really getting into the World Cup and seeing Panama in the draw on December 1st, for us it is absolutely amazing. It is a dream come true. It’s something historic.
Let’s talk about this campaign. There were moments when it seemed qualification was very far away, when you lost to Trinidad and Tobago [1-0]. Did you think it was over?
When Panama lost in Trinidad and Tobago it was a difficult result because we knew the other teams were going to win on that field. We weren’t counting that the US were going to lose to Trinidad. But we always had the hope. I think the hardest blow we suffered was the 4-0 defeat in Orlando against the US [in their penultimate qualification game] because the US played really good and we didn’t. And they were really superior to us. And we saw ourselves, we saw the dream of the World Cup really far away because we were hoping just for the play off and the chance to play against Australia. But we never lost the faith. We knew the least we could do was win against Costa Rica and hope for the miracle. And it happened!
Tell me about that Costa Rica game. Those last twenty minutes…
Amazing game, amazing game. It was incredible. We were losing. And everything was really similar to four years ago [When Panama narrowly missed a play-off spot Brazil 2014]. Costa Rica were winning and when the first half finished I spoke to the substitute goalkeeper. I asked him: ‘How are the other results going?’ He says: ‘The United States are losing.’ Wooooow! It can not be! The United States is losing! And we are losing? I asked him: ‘Honduras?’ ‘Draw.’ He said: ‘Don’t tell anyone because there are some players … if you told them that they might not know how to handle that information.’ There is a vibe that the match against Costa Rica is going to be a come back, but I never thought it was going to be in the way that it was. The team came out [for the second half] with a different mentality. I’m going to be honest. Of those two matches [the 4-0 defeat to the US and the 2-1 win over Costa Rica] Panama played very, very good only in the second period against Costa Rica. The two halves against the United States, and first half against Costa Rica, there were things to fix. But the second half against Costa Rica we saw a team that wanted to achieve something and we achieved the result.
How do Panamanians feel about the equalising goal, the so called ghost goal?
Well, look, a lot of people asked me about this. I’m gonna tell you something. I’ve had to cry, literally cry with a referee’s decisions. I’ve come out of some matches really, really sad because of a referee’s decision. I’ve always said: ‘One time it will be my turn to laugh and to jump in happiness about a wrong decision!’ And now it is. In truth, from my position I never saw it. I am too far away. Watching back, the ball definitely doesn’t cross the line. I can’t tell you that the ball goes in, because it never did but, well, I think it is part of the football. The referee, sometimes you want to grab them, sometimes you want to hug them. But they have to make a decision in seconds so it is complicated. I think it is part of the essence of football. Today it was our turn to laugh. So we have to enjoy it now.
The essence of Panama’s joy is encapsulated in commentary when Roman Torres scores the winning goal, four minutes from time. Have you heard it back since?
The commentator from television? He’s crazy! All of Panama wanted this. The World Cup for Panama became a dream, that looked unreachable. A dream that every time looked farther away. In Brazil it was close and it passed by. In past qualifications it passed by. It became an unreachable dream and reaching it was ecstasy for Panama.
And what about the moment you won the game, and you qualified. I guess it’s hard to describe how it felt when the whistle was blown and you had qualified for the World Cup…
I have always asked myself: ‘How would I feel if I qualified for a World Cup?’ Always this is my question. I felt like like a bottle, full of gas. There’s too much gas and you open it, like champagne. When I hear the referee finish the game I’m feeling like the pressure is released. I see players crying on the field. I always thank God in every match, but I stayed quiet. Calm. I felt an internal pressure come out. I’ve never felt that way. I took a minute to myself, felt that, and then went to hug my mates. And then the stadium was going to burst. Everyone was hugging each other, wearing costumes. It was crazy.
As a former LA Galaxy player, how do you feel beating such a big team like the US that had qualified for ever finals since Italia ’90, to take their place?
Bruce Arena, the technician of the USA, I hold him in high esteem because he was my coach at LA Galaxy. I have great affection for him and for his team of technicians. In truth It made me sad that they didn’t go to the play off. But it was our dream, our hope. It was our objective and we wanted it very much.
Did you speak to Bruce Arena afterwards?
Not too much, only a handshake but the feeling is only good. I respect this guy. I respect too much this guy. The person and the coach.
So now it is all about the preparation for the World Cup...
I tell you something honestly. Seeing it from now, cold, I’m not going to say it is easy, because it wasn’t easy, but I believe the elementary part was to qualify for the World Cup. Now, to confirm why [we are worthy of] going to the World Cup is going to be the hard part. It’s where we have to prepare ourselves two or tree times more. Because the World Cup gives us the opportunity to enter into a different level of football. Totally different from the one we know.
Is there anyone you want to face on Friday’s draw?
Maybe three teams. I would like to play with the hard teams. But the hard teams, are very hard teams! My dream is to play versus England, versus Germany, versus France. I don’t know. In the first bombo [bowl, with the pot one teams in them] maybe Germany, France. Is England in the first bombo?
No, they are in pot two…
Second? Mama Mia! This is the danger bombo. Spain, England…
Where will you watch the draw?
I don’t know! [He slaps the steering wheel and rubs his hands in excitement]. England is good. Very hard, very hard, my friend. If Panama get England, I would need maybe training two times a day. Maybe three.
If there was one thing that could happen at this World Cup, what would be the dream for this World Cup?
OK, my dream is to go step by step. A short step. My objective in this World Cup is to make a point. Make a point in my group. One point, three, four, I don’t know.
Just get a point on the board…
When I see the table, I don’t see zero, you know? My friend, if I told you: ‘Panama will finish in first position [and qualify for the knockout stage]’ I’d have to say: ‘No! Finish the interview!’ No. A point. If, when we have finished the first round, we make a point …[Shivers, rubs his arms as if he has goosebumps] look, my skin! A point. This is my objective.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Additional translation by Guillermo Astiaso Llamazares.