2018 World Cup has extra meaning for debutants, long-time absentees

In this Oct. 8, 2017 photo, Egypt's Mohamed Salah sings the national anthem before the 2018 World Cup Group E qualifying match between Egypt and Congo at the Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

With mere minutes left to accomplish an unthinkable dream of qualifying for the World Cup, Panama knew time was running out.

Armando Cooper received a throw-in deep in Panama’s defensive third. He popped his head up and launched the ball towards Luis Tejada. Tejada flicked the ball towards an onrushing Roman Torres. The centre-back, temporarily deployed as a striker in an effort to find a late winner, brushed off Costa Rican defender Kenner Gutierrez and struck a fierce shot that hit the back of the net.

Off came Torres’s shirt, the fans were losing their minds and the Panamanian commentators were on the brink of tears. Combined with the United States losing 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago, Panama secured its first-ever World Cup berth. The U.S. missed out.

American media pointed out that Blas Perez’s opening goal for Panama shouldn’t have counted. However, there was nothing that could be done to overturn the decision. The Panamanians were going to Russia, whether the Americans liked it or not.

“It was so crazy,” said Panamanian writer David Colina. “The president, for example, was escorted out of the stadium to immediately go and make a document for the next day to be a holiday. Streets were almost immediately filled with people in cars and running around celebrating and drinking. People stayed up to 6 a.m. celebrating in the streets.

“It was honestly one of the best moments of my life.”

Not even diehard Panama fans suspected they would secure qualification on the night of Oct. 10, 2017. Panama was fresh off a 5-0 loss to the U.S. just five days prior to that historic game. Everyone believed the U.S. would at least draw with a heavily rotated Trinidadian side. That was clearly not the case. As expected, there has been more attention on the national team after qualification. Everyone from the players to the fans have been affected in some way.

“You now see players in marketing campaigns for every type of company you can imagine,” Colina said. “And now that we have fulfilled the ultimate goal of qualifying for the World Cup, people have been calling for a restructure of the league here, since right now it has got so many problems. The national team has gotten more support than ever before, but the league has not really seen any positive effect from the qualification.”

It can take decades for a league to increase the standards on and off the pitch. Player development, licensing and other objectives are very tedious processes.

In Peru, the federation and league organizers have tried to implement the same guidelines. The country is returning to its first World Cup since 1982 and is trying to capitalize on the excitement.

The FIFA World Cup in Russia runs from June 14 to July 15, and Sportsnet.ca will have in-depth daily coverage.

The Peruvian football federation (FPF) is opening a state of the art training complex just outside of Lima, and Primera Division teams are giving more chances to young domestic players thanks to a unique rule. Every club in the league has to dedicate at least 4,000 minutes to Peruvian U-21 players across an entire season. If a club doesn’t meet the Bolsa de Minutos – or “bag of minutes” – quota, they are docked three points for every 90 minutes they are beneath the cut off. For example, if a club only had 3,800 minutes, it would lose six points.

However, the focus is very much on the national team. The controversial suspension of captain Paolo Guerrero swept the nation, but his subsequent return to the squad has boosted excitement across the country.

Absent from the World Cup for nearly four decades, Peru has a rich soccer history. It was one of the first World Cup participants in 1930 and has produced some brilliant players, such as Teofilo Cubillas. In recent times, Claudio Pizarro has won several titles in Germany, and Nolberto Solano – now an assistant coach with the national team – spent 10 years in the Premier League with Newcastle United, Aston Villa and West Ham United.

Peru could be one of the World Cup’s biggest surprises, like Costa Rica in 2014. However, the Peruvians have already exceeded expectations in many ways. At the beginning of September, they had a 12 per cent chance of qualifying for Russia. Peru’s Argentine coach, Ricardo Gareca, has dramatically altered the perception of the national team.

Fans are committed to a journey 36 years in the making. Some have taken out a second mortgage on their homes to finance a cross-continental trip to watch Peru’s friendlies and the matches at the World Cup. They are truly in the moment.

The team itself is obviously giddy with anticipation as well. The federation released these incredible motivational videos addressed to each of Peru’s Group C rivals to remind them of what the country is all about.

Egypt – another long-time absentee – had to wait until the penultimate round of African qualifying to assure its place in Russia. Mohamed Salah, likely the most beloved Egyptian worldwide, bagged a brace against Congo in Alexandria, sending the Pharaohs to their first World Cup since 1990.

Egypt might be one of the most passionate countries, but there are deep-rooted issues within Egyptian soccer. That is why the national team’s participation at the World Cup has sent the country into a frenzy.

“The national team is a great source of pride for Egyptians,” said Adam Moustafa of Egyptian sports website KingFut. “Having dominated Africa in continental competitions, we wanted the opportunity to showcase to the world what our team was capable of doing on the greatest stage; only to come up short year after year – until Russia 2018.

“No matter where you were watching the match that secured the Pharaohs’ return to the world stage, you could feel the emotion – from the stadium and streets erupting to the Egyptian commentators bursting into tears. The 8th of October felt like a national holiday where Egyptians could put everything aside and celebrate together.”

Despite winning the African Cup of Nations more than anyone else, Egypt always came up short in World Cup qualifying. However, like Gareca with Peru, another Argentine manager in Hector Cuper helped stabilize the team, as it won 20 of its 30 qualifiers. Cuper has fully embraced the job, going so far as to appearing in Vodafone’s Ramadan commercial last year. But his tactics make him a divisive figure, even after all of the success.

“His counter-attacking and defensive tactics aren’t to everyone’s taste,” Moustafa said. “Despite being the only living coach to have taken Egypt to a World Cup, fans remain divided if he’s the right man to lead us forward. His job description, like many other coaches before him, must’ve just been to ‘take Egypt to the World Cup’ and in that sense, he has succeeded; but he has not generated the same sort of hero status as Ricardo Gareca per se.”

In a group with the hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, Egypt should still feel confident about reaching the knockout stage for the first time. With Salah coming off a historic Premier League season with Liverpool, Egyptian fans should be prepared to extend their hotel bookings in Russia.

Moroccans might be modestly confident as well. Back at the World Cup for the first time in 1998, Morocco is in a group with 2010 winners Spain and current European champions Portugal. But that hasn’t deterred the country’s optimism at all.

“There is a big confidence among the fans and media,” said journalist Jalal Bounouar of Almarssadpro, the first Moroccan website focusing on Moroccan players around the globe.

“We trust our coach and our players. We have quality players who play in world-class leagues such as Medhi Benatia, Hakim Ziyech, Karim el Ahmadi, Achraf Hakimi and more. In addition to those talented players, we have got a strong unity inside the team and a winning spirit which make us believe in winning the match versus Iran and to concentrate on the two other matches. Morocco had the best defence during the [third] qualification stage without conceding a single goal.”

With the country also bidding for the 2026 World Cup, Moroccan soccer is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. More players are testing themselves in top leagues and are key cogs with big clubs, like Benatia at Juventus. Qualifying for this year’s tournament has only bolstered this phenomenon.

“Moroccan football is experiencing a golden moment since the national team has qualified for the World Cup and WAC Casablanca won the CAF Champions League title,” Bounouar said. “Additionally, Morocco is bidding to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, so everybody is enthusiastic and we are all looking forward to being in Russia as FIFA has already announced that Moroccan fans are among the top fans in terms of buying tickets.”

It’s no surprise that Moroccans snapped up tens of thousands of tickets for the World Cup, even if the costs are somewhat exorbitant. The tournament is on many bucket lists, but that is especially the case for fans from Morocco.

“Qualifying for the World Cup has always been a dream for the whole nation,” Bounouar said. “In the majority of Moroccan cities, [celebrations] were endless. Moroccan fans stayed outside the whole night celebrating this qualification. In fact, things started before the final match when more than 8,000 fans travelled to Abidjan [Ivory Coast] to support the team.

“We were confident that we’d be able to win the match against Ivory Coast. We had already won 3-0 versus Gabon and 6-0 versus Mali. Therefore, we were all confident about winning the last match.”

And they did exactly that. Buoyed by the excitement surrounding qualification and the World Cup bid, Morocco could be a dark horse in Russia. The likes of Benatia, Hakim Ziyech and Karim el Ahmadi are all in top form. Coach Herve Renard brought stability and organization on both sides of the ball, and this showed in the results. Morocco lost just once in eight matches (1-0 to Equatorial Guinea) and it was the only goal conceded across both stages of qualifying.

Beware of complacency, Portugal and Spain.

After a whirlwind Euro 2016, many forget that Iceland is actually participating in its first World Cup. They topped a strong qualifying group containing Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine, proving that the Euros were no fluke.

Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, proving that the Icelandic soccer revolution has worked wonders in just a few years.

Around 10,000 fans, roughly three per cent of the country’s population, traveled to France for the European Championships in 2016. They will definitely have a strong contingent in Russia as well. About 66,000 Icelanders requested tickets, which is roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population.

However, Iceland’s ministry of tourism is even encouraging non-World Cup participants to throw their support behind Iceland. They started a contest that includes a trip to the country ahead of the Argentina match, where they can watch the game with the locals.

The president of Iceland, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, echoes that sentiment: “Win or lose, there’s always the excitement of being a part of something big. Even when you’re small.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.