Soccer is pretty big deal in Panama. Panama City shuts down for FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. Fireworks are galore, and the bars are packed. Even the kids in San Miguel get classes cancelled in order to watch matches.
In early September, some interns and I tried to get tickets to the Panama vs. Spain World Cup qualifying match. Unfortunately, they sold out. In early November, some interns and I tried to get tickets to Panama vs. Honduras World Cup qualifying match, but again tickets were sold out. When Spain came to town for a friendly, we made sure to get tickets. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to attend an international soccer match. The game was on the day of our final presentations, so this was the perfect treat for us.
Because it’s Panama we had a few hiccups along the way. We had been in the cab for about 30 minutes when the driver realized he was taking us to the baseball stadium. Fortunately, the cabbie felt really bad and expertly maneuvered around town to get us quickly to the soccer stadium. We stood in line for 25 minutes because there is only one entrance into the stadium. There were food, beverage, and souvenir vendors set up the length of the entrance line, so it was nice to have a drink while standing impatiently in line. While standing in line, I was looking for a Panama jersey, but for some reason they were only selling Spain jerseys.
Missed kickoff because we were late, but when we got inside there was a lot of receipt paper strewn behind the south goal. To get the full culture experience, we sat in the section with the receipt paper and the drummers. We didn’t understand that you are supposed to hold onto the end of the roll when you toss it off the balcony. Unsurprisingly, everyone laughed at us. Beers were only $2 from the stand or $2.50 from a vendor. Vendors sold odd items such as, Taco Bell, chocolate bars, and boxes of raisins.
The crowd never stopped cheering throughout the whole game, even though the match itself was one sided. Spain won 5-1. It was pretty awkward also cheering for Spain and sitting in the overly passionate Panamanian fan section. Whatever, I cheer for good soccer.
The stadium seats 32,000, but I would estimate about 26,000 people showed up. This was surprising considering Panama was playing the best team in the world and offices in the capital were closed two hours prior to kickoff. Later after speaking with a Panamanian, I found out that the tickets were overpriced. For FIFA matches, the Federation subsidizes the cost. We paid $45 for the cheapest tickets. In a FIFA match, those same tickets would run for around $10-15.
Also, people aren’t interested in friendlies because the outcome doesn’t mean anything. Panama is ranked 46th, in the world; therefore, Spain didn’t bring all of their best players. Even Panama’s head coach said, “The best thing to take on Spain would be to allow us to play with 22 players instead of 11.” In spite of all of this, Panama paid $3,829,800 to Spain’s football governing body, for the match to take place.
In any case, I had an awesome time; my section was electric. In the final minutes, Panama scored off a penalty kick. You would have thought Panama had just scored the winning goal. The drums were deafening, and everyone was dancing. Receipt paper and beer were flying everywhere. That single goal celebration made my stay in Panama complete.