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
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!