Inside Panama and what you all need to know about England's World Cup rivals
It is down to “father figures” Gary Stempel and Peter Johnson that a clutch of the players heading to Russia from the gang-plagued Central American nation escaped ghetto life.
Instead of dodging bullets in drug-riddled slums, footballers including dreadlocked Panama icon Roman Torres will be in the global spotlight.
In a sport tarnished by Fifa sleaze, this captivating story of two Brits helping turn a bunch of street footballers into World Cup players helps restore some romance to the beautiful game.
In an air con-blasted cafe in the capital Panama City, Gary reminisces about his decade guiding hooligans and young offenders as a Millwall community sports worker.
Still with his Cockney twang, Arsenal fan Gary, 61, says it was a “good grounding” for when he began working with Panama’s under-22 squad in 1996.
The dad of two, who went on to manage the Panama national team between 2008 and 2009 and is now under-17s coach, revealed: “The kids I worked with all came from the ghetto.
“Many of them were already dads aged 15, some had been to jail. They were surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence.
“Our training ground called El Diablo — meaning The Devil — was a small, primary school gravel pitch with no nets.
“We had no bibs, it was T-shirts against skins. The kids would wear just one gym shoe on their strong foot.
“But the players were tall, fast, hungry and streetwise. They weren’t afraid of anything.”
Born in Panama, the son of local pro baseball player Cookie Stempel and a British mum, Gary moved to Willesden Green, North West London, aged six.
When he returned to his birth land to run soccer schools in 1994, the Panama team of the baseball-obsessed country was 144th in the Fifa rankings.
This nation is a crucial way station on the cocaine trail from Colombia to the US.
It is a place where ruthless gangs settle scores at the barrel of a gun.
Gary’s young players often did not know who their fathers were — and some had mums in jail.
Many worked three jobs to buy food for siblings.
Some would supplement their meagre diets by eating iguanas.
Gary recalls: “I was coaching the under-22 team when an iguana ran across the pitch.
“All the players chased it. Marco Aparicio caught it and tied it to a fence with his laces.
“He played the rest of the game without laces so he could take the iguana home for the family dinner.”
Gary, who also coached local top-flight clubs, won the Central American Nations Cup with the national side in 2009.
One of the young players he helped bring through was goalkeeper Jose Calderon, 32, who was raised in a tough ghetto area in Panama City.
Jose tells me: “Lots of my friends were in gangs. It’s all about drugs and territory.”
His family could only afford two meals a day and he either played football barefoot or in borrowed boots.
The dad of three, who now earns around £900 a week with Panama club side Chorrillo FC, adds: “I saw a friend gunned down.
“He was shot from distance. Then the gunman walked over and shot him in the head from point-blank range.
“You don’t forget stuff like that.”
Capped 13 times for his country and expected to be Panama’s No2 goalkeeper in Russia, Jose says: “I’m going to Russia because of Gary Stempel and Peter Johnson.”
While Gary was working wonders with the national set-up, former West Brom youth player Peter started a boys’ team that evolved into the now-defunct top-flight side Chepo FC.
The shipping agent, 69, originally from Oldbury, West Mids, arrived in Panama in 1974 to help vessels pass through its famous canal.
Peter explains: “The point was to get the youngsters off the streets and give them direction.
“We paid some of the kids to go to school and gave their families money so the kids could get buses to training.
“We provided boots and all the gear. We lost several along the way. Two or three of my players were killed and others are still in jail.”
Among those to pass through his team’s ranks were World Cup-bound Jose Calderon, Roman Torres, striker Gabriel Torres and midfielder Anibal Godoy.
His star player was defender Roman, 32, whose 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica in October sent his delirious nation to their first World Cup finals.
Tattooed, dreadlocked and built like a brick outhouse, Roman — who had trials at Coventry, Nottingham Forest and West Ham — is a footballing god in Panama.
The fisherman’s son, who plays for Seattle Sounders in the US, was born into poverty in the violence-plagued Barrio Lindo district of Panama City.
Shadowed by two gun-toting cops, Sun photographer Ray Collins and I venture to the ramshackle street where he grew up to meet his first coach, Antonin Aizpurua.
Behind the cramped shack where Roman was raised, two youngsters play keepie-ups beneath a graffiti warning “No Violence, No Drugs” as chickens peck piles of rubbish.
Football scout Antonin, 50, says: “The kids here either ate breakfast or lunch, not both. There were gangs and fights.
“Football was a way to escape. Roman started off playing in the streets, his family couldn’t afford football boots.
“When Panama play England the whole country will come to a standstill.
“To the kids he’s a symbol of what is possible for someone from Barrio Lindo.”
Roman’s rise to fame began when he was scouted by Gary for his under-17s. “At the time he was a striker,” Gary recalls.
“Around 300 lads had turned up for the trial. I asked the strikers and midfielders to stand up and most of the lads did.
“Roman saw his chance, stayed seated and turned himself instantly into a defender.
“He knew he’d have a better chance of progressing.”
In her comfortable bungalow in the more upscale suburb of Arraijan, Roman’s mum Gisell, 53, says the family used to scrape by on £140 a month.
The proud mother of three, who has turned her living room into a shrine to her footballer son, told me: “When Roman reached 13 we were worried he was mixing with the wrong crowd so we moved out of Barrio Lindo.
“It was being scouted by Gary that changed everything for him.
“When my boy scored the winner to take us to the World Cup I thought I would have a heart attack.
“He’s still the same humble boy from Barrio Lindo.”
Her son’s goal has driven Panama — now 55th in the Fifa rankings — World Cup crazy.
The country has even developed a wag culture.
A clutch of footballers’ wives — including glamorous mum-of-two Angie Malca, wife of goalie Jaime Penedo — promote a department store.
Around 4,000 Panama fans are expected to make the 7,000-mile journey to Russia.
Yet this story of joy is laced with tragedy after midfielder Amilcar Henriquez, 33, who had played in the four previous qualifying games, was gunned down in a Panama street in April last year.
When the 2000-1 tournament outsiders meet the Three Lions in Nizhny Novgorod in the second group match on June 24, Gary will be in the stands.
He said: “It will be a very emotional moment for me.
I’ve seen the sacrifices those players have made.
“It’s a massive achievement for them simply to be there.”
TEAM’S BOSS BEAT UP LOVER
THE Panama coach plotting England’s World Cup downfall is an outcast in his native Colombia after beating up his mistress in the street.
Hernan Dario Gomez, 62, was boss of the national team when he repeatedly hit Isabel Fernanda del Rio, 38, outside a Bogota bar in 2011.
Isabel says she was left with a broken nose after Gomez grabbed her hair and punched her five times after an argument during THE night out.
And she says that married Gomez’s first thought when he got into a taxi after assaulting her was for his own job and reputation.
She said: “He looked at me and said, “F***, I’ve f***ed my life. I’ve thrown my life away, Isabel’.”
Initially he clung on to his job, but he was forced to resign after female senators brandished red cards in Colombia’s congress in protest.
In 2012 Gomez, known as El Bolilo – The Baton – said: “My behaviour that night was a total disgrace. I lost my family, my wife . . . and Colombia.”
Gomez – only the second manager to take three different nations to a World Cup – is no stranger to violence.
When he was Ecuador coach he was shot in the thigh after dropping overweight defender Dalo Bucaram – son of former president Abdala Bucaram – from the Under-20 World Cup squad in 2001.
Gomez recalled: “All I remember saying is I didn’t want to die.”
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