Happy Gomez ready for Panama World Cup debut

Panama City (AFP) –


Hernan Dario Gomez will join an elite band of coaches when he leads Panama into their debut World Cup campaign, one of only four men to have taken at least three different national teams to the finals.

The 62-year-old heads to Russia in the latest chapter of a colourful international career that has included separate spells in charge of his native Colombia as well as stints with Ecuador, Guatemala and now Panama.

Gomez's coaching career began as an assistant to Francisco Maturana, helping the team qualify for both the 1990 and 1994 World Cups.

In 1995, Gomez took over as Colombia coach, leading the team to the 1998 finals in France where they exited in the group stage.

A year later, Gomez was appointed as Ecuador coach, and duly masterminded the country's first ever World Cup qualification at the 2002 tournament.

A two-year stint with Guatemala was followed by a year-long spell with Bogota club side Sante Fe, before he returned as Colombia coach in 2010.

His second stint with "Los Cafeteros" ended after just over a year in charge, when he was accused of attacking a woman who allegedly insulted him at a bar in Colombia.

Gomez later resigned from his position, saying in a statement his behaviour "shames me in front of my mother, my wife and every single woman in my family and in my country."

Gomez's career appeared to have stalled, but he was handed the opportunity of redemption in early 2014 after Panama's agonising failure to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil that year.

"We start a process today that will take us to Russia 2018," Gomez declared upon his appointment.

Three years later he delivered on that promise as Panama snatched qualification in the most dramatic fashion, defeating Costa Rica 2-1 in injury time on the final day of qualifying in a result that helped eliminate the United States.

Gomez is now feted as a hero in Panama, a status unlikely to be threatened by results in Russia, where his team face England, Belgium and Tunisia in Group G.

"I'm happy in Panama, the people show us affection: they love and respect the national team and what we have done," Gomez told The Guardian in a recent interview.

"There's lots of love at the moment. I feel as if it was the first time. I feel happy and proud. I would say to the people: enjoy it, it's high tide, we have a lot to learn, have a good time and be happy."