Meet Panama’s strong­man

Panama hero Ro­man Tor­res scored the goal that sent his na­tion to their first World Cup. Now he’s ready to take on Kane, Lukaku... and Ak­in­fenwa

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view An­drew Mur­ray

David Beck­ham had a tele­scopic boot and con­stant sup­ply of ice to mend his bro­ken metatarsal for the 2002 World Cup. Four years later, Wayne Rooney pre­ferred to use an oxy­gen cham­ber, and Ney­mar’s spent much of 2018 play­ing poker. Ro­man Tor­res, how­ever, has a steam room. “You’ve got to kick back and re­lax ev­ery now and again,” says the Seat­tle Sounders and Panama de­fen­sive linch­pin, who is re­cov­er­ing from a ham­string nig­gle, when he sits down for a World Cup chat with Four­fourtwo. “I’ll def­i­nitely be ready.” Los Canaleros are only head­ing to Rus­sia thanks to the bull­doz­ing cen­tre-back’s hero­ics last Oc­to­ber. With three min­utes left of Cen­tral Amer­i­can qual­i­fy­ing, Tor­res – thrust into emer­gency cen­tre-for­ward ac­tion – blootered a bounc­ing ball into Costa Rica’s net to seal both a fa­mous win and dump the USA out of this sum­mer’s fi­nals.

It cat­a­pulted the hulk­ing Tor­res – a dread­locked square of mus­cle – into world foot­ball’s con­scious­ness. He’s usurped Ade­bayo Ak­in­fenwa as FIFA’S strong­est player and is now Panama’s poster boy, some­one who per­forms best when his team need him most.

Eng­land and Harry Kane will find that out this sum­mer, fac­ing the tour­na­ment new­bies in their sec­ond group game.

And be­yond that, even Ak­in­fenwa...

How much are you look­ing for­ward to this sum­mer? Oh God, it’s go­ing to be in­cred­i­ble. And it’s not just me, or the squad. Ev­ery sin­gle per­son in Panama can’t wait for the tour­na­ment to start and the planet to hear our na­tional an­them in­side the sta­di­ums. It’s made me so proud know­ing I’m go­ing to be part of it, and what we’ve al­ready achieved is his­toric.

What do you make of your group – Bel­gium, Eng­land and Tu­nisia? It’s a very good group for us. It was im­por­tant for Panama to come up against some big teams who play re­ally good foot­ball, and that’s cer­tainly what we’ve got. What plans do you have to stop Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku from scor­ing against Panama? I know I’ve got an im­por­tant job to do and I’ve pre­pared very well to stop them. Con­cen­tra­tion is key be­cause these are play­ers who never stop mov­ing and are re­ally dan­ger­ous in the penalty area. What can they ex­pect from me? They should know to re­spect my zone! They are skilful and strong play­ers, but I’ll be ready for them.

Costa Rica fa­mously reached the last eight in Brazil four years ago. Does that serve as an in­spi­ra­tion for you? Def­i­nitely. If they can reach the quar­ter-fi­nals, there’s no rea­son why we can’t, too. But we have to for­get about the past when we ar­rive in Rus­sia. We must not ad­mire any other team – foot­ball is 11 vs 11 and any­thing can hap­pen.

De­scribe your goal against Costa Rica, which sent Panama to their first ever World Cup fi­nals… It’s a goal that will go down in his­tory. I’ll for­ever guard it in my mind and heart. So will all of Panama. I was over­come with hap­pi­ness. At the time, I didn’t know what the goal meant. It was only af­ter­wards that I re­alised we had qualified au­to­mat­i­cally.

Was it al­ways the plan for you to go up­front if you needed a goal? To be hon­est, it’s noth­ing new. It’s al­ways an op­tion if we need a goal, as I used to play up­front as a kid. I’d like to say I think like a for­ward. That also helps me to an­tic­i­pate what op­pos­ing strik­ers are think­ing.

How did you cel­e­brate? I started cry­ing. Four years ear­lier we’d lost to the USA when it looked like we would qual­ify for our first World Cup. Peo­ple were over­come by sad­ness and now they were cry­ing tears of joy. It meant ev­ery­thing to ev­ery Pana­ma­nian. It was a great re­ward for what we went through.

Your goal meant the USA missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986. How did your Seat­tle team-mates re­act? Ac­tu­ally, the first thing they all did was to con­grat­u­late me. Of course they weren’t thrilled that the USA wouldn’t be go­ing to the World Cup, but they knew how in­cred­i­bly hard I’d worked to achieve this dream. The week­end af­ter that goal, we played FC Dal­las at home and I was wor­ried about how the fans would re­act. I was ex­pect­ing boos but it was the to­tal op­po­site. Every­one was cheer­ing and singing my name.

You’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of amaz­ing mo­ments with Panama, but what has been the worst? There have been a few, but a cou­ple stand out, both against the USA. The first was con­ced­ing two late goals to miss out on the play-offs for the 2014 fi­nals, but los­ing 4-0 last Oc­to­ber was a body blow. It looked like we were out of the World Cup with that de­feat, but I’m so proud of the de­ter­mi­na­tion the team showed to re­cover against Costa Rica four days later and qual­ify.

Have you ever come close to play­ing in Eng­land? Yes. There was in­ter­est from both Black­pool and Swansea in 2010 and I had a trial with Not­ting­ham For­est at the start of 2012. With For­est, it was only a ques­tion of cash that we couldn’t make it hap­pen. I want to have a good World Cup and see what the fu­ture holds.

You re­cently be­came the strong­est player in the lat­est FIFA up­date, over­tak­ing Ade­bayo Ak­in­fenwa… I’ve seen Ak­in­fenwa play – he’s re­ally strong and loves a goal. I’ve heard he wants to re­claim his ti­tle with a strength bat­tle. If he fancies it, bring it on. Let’s make it hap­pen!

Fi­nally, tell us some­thing we don’t know about Panama. We’re a se­cret pack­age, so I can’t lose that ad­van­tage by say­ing too much, but the coun­try is won­der­ful and full of hum­ble peo­ple. There are so many beau­ti­ful things to do and we would wel­come any­one to our coun­try. We’re much more than just a canal!

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