Panama seal historic Under-20 World Cup berth
Paul Clarke, Gleaner Writer
Panama came into last evening's CONCACAF Under-20 Championship match against Guatemala needing only a point to seal a historic place in the 2015 age-group World Cup in New Zealand and in the end, got all three points from a thumping header from Ismael Diaz de Leon.
De Leon converted his first clear attempt in the 66th minute to lead Panama to a fifth straight win and maximum 15 points, remarkably without conceding a goal so far, after turning back the Guatemalans 1-0 at the Montego Bay Sports Complex.
"It was a very hard game for us; we tried playing aggressive all the time and we actually got a goal from something we tried a number of times," said Panama head coach Leonardo Pipino.
"I think coming this far without conceding any goals is a valuable achievement for us, because as coaches it is something we pay serious attention to, but now we are looking ahead and we think we can get some more with the championship game against Mexico to come," he said.
"The players worked hard and in the end it was a deserved triumph for our side."
Guatemala definitely gave as much as they received without the luck of scoring but still have a chance to make the World Cup through the play-offs on Saturday, also in Montego Bay.
Panamanian midfielder Justin Simons came close on a number of occasions and was pivotal throughout the entire contest with his tackling and marking of opposing players. He was also involved in the build-up to the goal from de Leon, who snapped his header past Nicholas Hagen in goal for Guatemala.
The overjoyed Panamanian contingent danced and sang at the final blast from referee Hugo Cruz's whistle, as it signalled the first time a foreign-born coach has qualified any team from that country to a FIFA football final.
Pipino said the team will celebrate as much as they can tonight before settling down one last time for their final clash against Mexico.
"We will celebrate tonight but starting tomorrow, we will begin to plan for Mexico, who is a form team," he said.
Guatemalan coach Carlos Alberto Ruiz said the result was not a surprise to him, because he knew the quality players Panama has, but promised to work twice as hard to qualify from the play-off, also on Saturday.