Roman Torres: Panama’s ‘film star’ footballer dreams of beating England at World Cup

Roman Torres
Roman Torres has been described as Panama’s “national hero”

When England line up against World Cup debutants Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on 24 June, it will be almost two years to the day since they were humbled by another of football’s emerging nations, Iceland.

On a balmy night in Nice, England’s inadequacy combined with Iceland’s blossoming talent to give the Nordic islanders arguably their finest moment.

Leading Panama’s challenge will be their bushy-haired, well-built central defender Roman Torres – a man so popular in his football-mad home nation he is, by his own estimation, regarded rather like a film star.

Roman Torres: Panama’s ‘film star’ footballer dreams of beating England at World Cup
Roman Torres: Panama’s ‘film star’ footballer dreams of beating England at World Cup

So how did Panama – and Torres – get to this point? And what threat will they pose to England?

BBC Sport’s Shamoon Hafez spent a day in the Central American nation’s capital – Panama City – with Seattle Sounders defender Torres.

A late winner in ’emotional’ qualifier

Roman Torres
Defender Torres put away the winning goal with the composure of a striker

“That moment means so much to me and my family,” Torres says, as he stares into the distance with a huge grin on his face, the memories of the evening of 10 October last year rushing back to him.

“It is something historic, something that will always be in my heart and soul. I will never forget that day.”

It was certainly a dramatic finale to a pulsating qualifying campaign in the Concacaf region.

Opponents Costa Rica had already booked their place in Russia, but neighbours Panama needed a goal to progress automatically, having levelled via a controversial equaliser that did not appear to cross the line.

The hosts were frantically searching for the elusive second and skipper Torres was waved forward by manager Hernan Dario Gomez.

Moments later he could not believe his luck.

A flick-on landed right in his path and he held off a defender in the box, let the ball bounce, and lashed a finish into the roof of the net.

Estadio Rommel Fernandez erupted.

Torres stripped off his number five shirt to celebrate with the supporters, who set off red flares. Pandemonium ensued in the stands, on the sidelines and in the commentary box.

“Roman, Roman, Roman,” shrieked the commentator, who could barely hold himself together. “Gol, gol, gol, gol. Gol de Panama!”

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The streets of Panama City were filled with people celebrating

Amid the pandemonium, an elderly lady climbed down from her seat and made her way on to the pitch, before lying on her back and waving her arms in the air. Two stewards and a Panama substitute helped her away.

Meanwhile, Torres received yellow card for his over-exuberant celebration. It took around three minutes for play to restart – and there was no time for a Costa Rica equaliser.

The full-time whistle blew, sending Panama off to the World Cup for the first time (they had agonisingly missed out in their last match four years previously).

“It means a lot for the people of Panama,” says 32-year-old Torres. “For a long time we have been trying to reach the World Cup.

“Four years ago we were crying with sadness after losing to the United States, this time it was only happiness.”

Karol Elizabeth Lara, a sports journalist for the newspaper Panama America, told BBC Sport: “People went crazy when we qualified.

“People were crying and it a very emotional moment in our history. Our population is around four million and about two million were out on the streets that evening.”

The following day was declared a national holiday by president Juan Carlos Varela, with public and private workers given the day off and school classes cancelled.

‘I feel like a film actor, everyone wants a photo’

Roman Torres
Torres has a permanent reminder of Panama reaching the 2018 World Cup

Capped more than 100 times by Panama, Torres is the highest-profile and most recognisable player in the team. Images of his face are emblazoned all around the city – on billboards, at bus stops holding a new credit card and in sports shops advertising the sports brand he endorses.

We meet at Amador Causeway, the perfect place to watch the colossal container ships entering and exiting the famous canal and where Torres is taking part in a photo shoot for a new clothing line under his name.

After numerous outfit changes and instructions from the photographer on how to stand and where to look, Torres finishes up by taking a few selfies and signing shirts for the supporters who had patiently waited for him.

A bodyguard with a gun at his hip stands close by, listening intently to every word.

“Since October, it is as though I have become a film actor,” he says. “Everything changed a lot, everyone wants a photo with me. It does not bother me because I am enjoying this historic time with the national team.”

Roman Torres
Torres scored the winning penalty in the 2016 MLS Cup final

Torres joined Major League Soccer side Seattle in August 2015, but his first season was wrecked by a knee injury in September, which it took him until June the following year to recover from.

Boss Brian Schmetzer stuck with the player while he recuperated and he repaid the club in spectacular fashion by scoring the winning penalty in the 2016 MLS Cup final against Toronto.

Torres has a permanent reminder of that – and the World Cup qualifying goal – tattooed on his legs.

“One of my aims was to become champion of the MLS and I did that,” said Torres. “I became a champion, after all that had happened with my knee injury.

“Then to get that last goal, that is why I got the tattoo of the cups.”

Panama is an idyllic-looking country, from San Blas Islands to the shimmering black sand beaches of Punta Chame and Coronado, as well as the canyon, rivers and waterfalls in the mountainous region of Boquete, situated close to the border of Costa Rica.

San Blas and Boquete
San Blas Islands (left) and the region of Boquete provide spectacular views

Panama City is very modern and developed in parts, its skyline a mini-Manhattan of tall buildings. We drive through the more humble neighbourhoods such as San Miguelito and Santa Ana, where the less well-off live and where Torres grew up.

He went back to his home village last December where he was mobbed by the locals on his arrival, meeting families and distributing gifts to children.

Torres added: “I think the profile of the country has grown a lot, and for me it is something very important, it is really good to see it happening.

“For a lot of people, the fact that we are going to the World Cup will change their lives a lot. We are an example for the youth of the country.”

Journalist Lara adds: “Roman Torres is our national hero. He is the best and the main player of the team. He is the most known and people love him.

“The boxer Roberto Duran is the number one sportsman in the history of Panama. Torres is maybe two or three because we also have baseball player Mariano Rivera who was at the New York Yankees.”

Admiring Ferdinand and preparing for England

Roman Torres
Street art is created of Torres in Panama City, while he regularly features in the local newspapers

Torres’ biggest regret is missing out on moves to England in 2010 and 2011. Blackpool, then a Premier League side, and Swansea were both interested in signing him, while he spent time on trial at Nottingham Forest, but none of the transfers materialised “for economic reasons”.

Despite signing a new two-year deal with Seattle recently, Torres has “not lost sight of one of his dreams” of playing in England or Europe.

“For that reason I have to prepare myself well to perform the best I can at the World Cup,” he says.

In the competition, he will be up against against the star-studded Belgium side, as well as one of the best strikers in the world, a task he is not fazed by.

“England’s Harry Kane is a very good striker in very good form and we will have to be physically and mentally well prepared,” he says.

“But we have to think about ourselves. We can’t be afraid, we are a team capable of taking on bigger teams and will have to be at our very best.

“As a defender, Rio Ferdinand is someone I really liked as player. He was someone who is always concentrated on the pitch.

“Yes, there are a lot of people who say Panama will struggle at the World Cup, but we – the players – are not thinking like that. We are just thinking about going to Russia and performing well.”

Minnows Costa Rica clinched a knockout place at the expense of England in 2014. Should Torres and Panama achieve the same, it will go down as an even greater feat.

Interview translated by Patrick Jennings.

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