Former Panama coach Gary Stempel has warned England not to underestimate the World Cup debutants next summer or risk suffering an upset that would trump any in their history.
Panama will be gracing the finals for the first time after qualifying in third place from the CONCACAF section and their impact in Russia is expected to be limited.
Not only are they one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament but they have also been drawn in one of the toughest groups, alongside Tunisia, star-studded Belgium and the 1966 world champions.
However, Stempel, who was born in Panama, raised in England and has a wealth of experience and knowledge about both nations, insists the Panamanians are not a race who will simply roll over without a fight.
The 59-year-old also says Los Canaleros will not be intimidated or overawed at facing some of the Premier League’s top stars in Group G.
Stempel told Press Association Sport: “It ‘s a great advantage playing at your first World Cup. From a Panamanian point of view, as underdogs, they literally have nothing to fear.
“They will be highly motivated and won’t have any kind of inferiority complex whatsoever.”
He added: “They are mentally very strong, they won’t be subdued by the occasion, they will go and enjoy it. They have this street football mentality, where they learn their football, it’s rough and ready.
“They don’t care. Going back to the tough upbringing, you had to survive in very difficult conditions, conditions that many people in England would not even dream of.
“And that gives a certain type of strength, they don’t care basically. That is an advantage and I guarantee they will not be star-struck at all.”
England have painfully fresh memories of coming unstuck against a supposed minnow, famously being dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, while a 1-0 defeat to the United States in the 1950 World Cup is considered one of the Three Lions’ most embarrassing results.
Stempel believes a Panama win on June 24 in Nizhny Novgorod could eclipse all, though.
He said: ” It wouldn’t compare, this would be number one. This is a country that doesn’t have a professional league, that started playing football in baseball grounds with the mound in the middle of the pitch.
“They call it a professional league here but you’ve got players earning about Â£300 a month. It’s still a baseball country. Iceland have many players playing in European leagues.
“1950? Maybe. It could perhaps get to that, but if you talk in the modern era, and you talk about big players earning Â£200,000-300,000 a week, this would be a major, major upset. Be careful.”
Stempel knows better than most the striking differences between the footballing cultures of Panama and England .
An Arsenal fan, Stempel spent a decade working with Millwall before returning to Panama in the mid-1990s where he has had a major influence at both club and international level – including guiding the national team to the Central American Nations Cup title and CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-finals in 2009.
He believes there is a certain ‘romance’ to the football in Central America that has been lost to the European game.
He said: “T he beauty about football from these countries compared to the far more developed European football, there is this romantic essence of it being what football used to be like in the old days. Where you started playing in the streets with your mates, putting a couple of rocks on the street and playing, and that still goes on here.
“You don’t get 17 or 16-year-olds coming to training in Ferraris.
” You must not underestimate the Panamanians, you just have to look at their sporting history,” added Stempel, highlighting the nation’s success in boxing, baseball and other sports.
“For a small nation they are physically very strong, they’ve got a very, very strong character. Kids on the street, nothing scares them, nothing intimidates them, so England and Belgium will not intimidate them.”
Stempel is unwilling to predict how England will do in Russia, but he believes there are positives signs for the future.
He said: ” For the first time in years England are actually taking the Under-17s and U20s seriously, which Latin American countries have always done. So this could be maybe the change that England needs, let’s hope it is.”