England’s stars will fear being a World Cup laughing stock if Panama do an Iceland in Nizhny Novgorod.
That’s the warning from Gary Stempel – the Englishman credited with putting Panama on the football map.
The former Panama manager and current coach of the country’s U-17 side is in Russia helping team boss Hernan Dario Gomez prepare the Panamanian’s for their Group G games.
After losing 3-0 to Belgium Stempel admits Panama’s stars now face “the game of their lives” against England.
And he’s sure Southgate’s men will be having nightmares at the prospect of losing to the World Cup minnows – and the same meltdown that followed their defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016.
“This will be the biggest game of their lives for Panama’s players – and that in itself is a motivation.
“Nobody likes to play the underdogs. The thought of ‘oh my God if we lose to Panama’ will be in the England players heads. Like with Iceland” says Stempel
“There’s no doubt that will be in their mind right now, when they wake up on the morning of the game, and that is a pressure.
“Our players don’t have that pressure and hopefully that will count for them.”
Panama believe England have an over-reliance on skipper Harry Kane to score goals and Stempel admits they know how to deal with the Tottenham star.
“There is this Harry Kane reliance and dependency and you can’t rely on the same player every game, someone else has to step up” says Stempel.
“Panama won’t have a specific plan to stop him except with their tactical discipline and they will have someone on him at set plays.
“They certainly won’t give him the space he needs, just as they didn’t give Romelu Lukaku much space in the first half of the Belgium game.”
(Image: DAILY MIRROR)
Stempel, born in Panama City to a British mother and a Panamanian baseball professional, has had a life-long love affair with football in the Central American state despite returning to London when he was six.
While working in Millwall’s community programme Stempel – now 60 – gained his coaching badges and moved back to Panama in 1996 to manage San Francisco Futbol Club.
In a country brought up on the exploits of boxer Roberto Duran and New York Yankees Panamanian pitcher Mariano Rivera, football wasn’t high on the national agenda.
But Stempel changed that in 2009 leading Panama to their first ever international football trophy – the UNCAF Nations Cup – beating Costa Rica 5-3 in a penalty shoot-out.
And he knows these Panama’s players will be even bigger heroes if they can spring a shock against England.
“They have a great chance to make a name for themselves and they will be better for the game against Belgium.
“In that first half this team showed what they can do. They played without any fear and gave a good account of themselves” says Stempel.
“There was not a huge difference on the pitch despite the difference in terms of money, tradition and history of the players.
“So they will be trying to frustrate England as they did first half with Belgium when Romelu Lukaku was going crazy because he hardly touched the ball.
“He was well marked at corners and free kicks and you could also see Kevin De Bruyne getting very frustrated as well.
“We’ve watched the England performance against Tunisia again and it was very inconsistent.
“First half they looked very comfortable and composed, but in the second it was another team completely.
“Panama’s players are enjoying being here but they also know there is a responsibility that comes with that.
“This is a very humble, resilient bunch of players many who have had very difficult lives.
“And they will be backed by very passionate fans. The Belgium game in Sochi was amazing. The Panama fans easily outnumbered Belgium and out sang them.
“In terms of atmosphere it was fantastic and the team was not overawed. They showed a lot of maturity and we will be better against England.”