By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Panama's delight at their first appearance in a World Cup will have been tempered somewhat by the reality check they received in Russia.
The Central Americans head home after losing all their three games in Group G and conceding 11 goals -- including six in their thrashing from England, a 3-0 loss to Belgium and Thursday's 2-1 defeat to Tunisia.
No team had a worse record than Hernan Dario Gomez's side but he was quick to reject the labelling of his side as the weakest in the competition.
"You shouldn't call us the worst team. We are the youngest team with most difficulties. How many pitches do we have? What kind of infrastructure do we have?... Look at the history of the other countries here... You should respect our team more," he said.
Gomez has a point in the sense that Panama's real achievement was to be among the 32 teams at the finals given the limited material he has to work with.
Unlike in most Latin American countries, football does not have a strong tradition in Panama and it lagged behind boxing, baseball and basketball in popularity until a few years ago.
Panama did not even enter the World Cup until the qualifiers for the 1978 tournament but that has changed and in the last decade they have become a force in the CONCACAF region.
Since 2005, they have twice reached the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the semi-finals on another two occasions, including a stormy defeat to Mexico in 2015.
With the United States in disarray and a favourable combination of results elsewhere, Panama finished third in the final stage of the CONCACAF qualifiers, despite winning only three out of 10 games and scoring a modest nine goals.
It will again be a tough battle for the Central Americans to make it to Qatar in 2022 although the expansion of the tournament to 48 teams from 2026, doubling the automatic qualification slots for CONCACAF, should keep the door open for the future.
That future will require a new generation to come through as several of the country's pioneering World Cup squad won't likely be around for another cycle.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)