In the shadow of palm trees and the looming skyscrapers of Panama City, the under-20 Panamanian women’s national team drilled soccer balls into a net. The young athletes, dressed in red practice uniforms and colorful sneakers, are too proud to wear bulky shin guards. The atmosphere is jovial on this scorching Monday in early March, but the air is thick with humidity and tension. The women are training for the biggest tournament of their careers: July’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, hosted by Panama and Costa Rica.
On one side of the field, injured goalkeeper Yenith Bailey, 18, hops over a small stool to warm up her legs. Bailey, who also plays with the senior-level national team, can’t practice until she recovers from a head injury. The star goalkeeper was yanked from the senior team’s Olympic qualifying match against the U.S. in Houston Jan. 31 after she collided heads with U.S. player Jessica McDonald. The team lost 8-0.
“It’s a dream — I always wanted to play in a World Cup, and I believe we’re going to achieve it,” Bailey said through a translator at a March 3 practice at the Luis E. Cascarita Tapia sports complex. “It’s another opportunity and a big responsibility for us. We are going to be a bit nervous, because we’re the home team and we have to keep our heads held high and do well.”
Bailey is one of six teenage players on Panama’s 20-player roster who also plays for the U-20 team. The Panamanian Football Federation, which runs the men’s and women’s organizations, has invested in children, coaches and young female players like Bailey to increase the country’s pool of future stars. The investment is working: The women skyrocketed 87 places to No. 53 in the world rankings from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. They started out ranked as 140 out of 155 teams in 2015. But today’s female players are still not equipped to face the best teams in the world – including the U.S., Germany and France – because the federation has not provided the resources to train them while they are young.
As a result, the women have never qualified for the Olympics or a single World Cup since the tournament began in 1991. The men, meanwhile, finished 32nd in their first-ever World Cup appearance in Russia in 2018. Federation officials hope the young players on the women’s team will lead Panama to its first World Cup or Olympic appearance by 2028, where they will clash with teams who have groomed their players from a young age.
The world’s soccer powerhouses – such as FC Barcelona in Spain, Manchester United in England and Santos FC in Brazil – take children as young as 6 away from their parents to train in specialized academies. The results show on these professional teams and the national teams where players bring their skills part-time. Neymar, David Beckham, Lionel Messi and other soccer legends were destined for stardom from the moment they left their homes to join youth academies. Panama has no such training program for men or women.
“We don’t have competitions in our country for girls from 6 to 13 years old. You need to start them from 6 to 8 years old. This is what we see all over the world,” said Pacifico Giron, the federation’s technical development director. “FIFA wants us to focus on the senior level, but we need to focus on the basics. I think that’s why we’re talking about England, Germany, also Japan, also China, because they developed the game from the basics, not the senior level.”
A five-step plan for success
The federation last year implemented a five-step plan to bring the men’s and women’s teams to the same level as the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica by 2028, Giron said. The goal is to partner with Panama’s Ministry of Education to accomplish the first step: teaching coaches to better prepare young players for challenges on and off the field. Other steps include hiring a competent federation staff who understands soccer and mimicking the North American teams by hosting tournaments and training camps for young players.
“We try to develop these young players to first become a professional player, but also have them become a good person for our country. Because we only focus on the game, but we need to focus on helping them to become good people to represent our country,” Giron said. “Our new coaches will teach these players important skills for life outside the game, too.”
Panama’s skill development program is modeled after the U.S. Soccer Federation and U.S. Youth Soccer’s programs. U.S. players as young as 13 can try out for Olympic development camps and training camps, which are direct pipelines to the youth national teams. The U.S. Soccer Federation offers youth national teams for women and girls under the ages of 15 through 20 and 23. Panamanian girls, meanwhile, can play on U-17 and U-20 teams. The Panamanian Football Federation scouts future players from its own leagues.
Boys, however, can be scouted when they are as young as 8 years old, because that’s when they can join the federation’s boys’ league: Liga Panameña de Fútbol. But the federation often does not find talented young female players until they turn 13, which is the age when they can join Liga de Fútbol Femenino, or LFF, the league for women. Giron said the federation needs to offer more opportunities for adolescent girls to play soccer at school and in organized leagues.
“The girls are just learning [soccer] outside and then they jump into the league. We have no competitions for young girls. We are bringing in more female coaches to help with the girls’ development,” Giron said.
Hilary Jaen was scouted from the LFF. The 17-year-old central defender from Panama City plays for both the senior and U-20 teams, and she also plays for Tauro F.C. in the LFF. Jaen is short, but she’s scrappy and determined and has already faced off against some of the best players in the world. As she looked beyond the Panama City skyscrapers from the dugout at the Tapia sports complex, she envisioned all the teams she wants to beat as Panama grows in skill and confidence.
“The senior team has the level to make it to the World Cup, and I think we can do it. But it will take a lot more practice, skill and preparation,” said Jaen. “I think [the federation] is giving us resources, but more is always helpful.”
Growth on and off the field
Raiza Gutiérrez is one of the coaches the federation hired to mentor young girls. Gutiérrez, the head coach of the U-20 team, understands the power a coach holds over players. Soccer was her escape as she grew up in El Chorrillo, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Panama City.
“Soccer helped me grow into a better person and coach. I live in a region where there are a lot of gangs, and teens killing other kids, so I tried to become a person that helped them become a better person. Our situation is really hard because we have gangs every day,” said Guitiérrez, 35.
Gutiérrez is one of the coaches who participated in the federation’s updated training program, which teaches coaches how to train players in basic soccer skills such as juggling and passing. The federation also selects coaches from the countryside to travel to Panama City and bring new skills back to their players.
Two of those potential future players are Leynier, 3, and Brian Brayon, 4, who were running around the streets of Casco Viejo in Panama City on a warm Saturday in early March, kicking a deflated ball in their matching superhero Crocs. Their grandmother stood watching on the sidewalk as they avoided cars and passed the ball to adults walking by.
“My dream is for [my grandsons] to get paid to play in a professional league. They are still young, but they really like soccer. They play a lot with their father. It teaches them helpful life skills,” said Leydis Camarena, 46.
Camarena is one of the supporters the federation wants to engage to watch more games. The final step in the federation’s nine-year plan to elevate the men’s and women’s teams is to increase public support for the game, Giron said. Matches at Panama City’s Rommel Fernández Stadium rarely fill to its 32,000-seat capacity, but the Panamanian soccer community hopes the U-20 tournament – which FIFA postponed to January 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic – will excite the country and encourage young girls to learn soccer.
José Murillo, 25, grew up in Colombia and Panama. He is a defender for Panama City-based C.D. Plaza Amador in the Liga Panameña de Fútbol. He said the women’s teams do not get enough publicity or funds to invest in the future of the sport.
“Women’s soccer isn’t supported like in other countries, and the competition isn’t the same. The talent is here, but the resources aren’t,” Murillo said.
Hope for the future
Giron, the federation’s technical development director, said Panama has produced 25 professional soccer players who are mostly male, including former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and Felipe Baloy, a defender who scored Panama’s first-ever World Cup goal in 2018. When the nine-year plan is over, the federation hopes the number of professional Panamanian soccer players will skyrocket.
“If I can get to the professional level in the United States, that’s the dream,” Andrea Stanziola, a 16-year-old defender with the U-20 team, said as she helped her coaches pick up soccer balls after practice. “I’ve been playing soccer since I was 9 years old. It means a lot to me. It has helped me through my life to be more disciplined and to have something to care about.”
At the Panama City soccer field on that humid March day, Bailey, the standout goalkeeper, was waiting for the day she could return to the pitch. She is preparing, mentally and physically, for the U-20 World Cup, which will be one of the most important moments of her life.
Watching her teammates practice from a shaded dugout away from the field, Bailey knows she represents the hopes and dreams of young girls across the country, but she said she does not carry the responsibility alone. Because the U-20 World Cup is only the first step to achieving World Cup glory.
“We are better when we are united,” Bailey said. “It’s a big experience to be able to represent my country. A lot of girls have come before me, and we have improved a lot, both on and off the pitch. I always say, ‘Faith and unity and being humble will get me to where I want to go.’”