By Brian Homewood
(Reuters) - If your country's national team has never qualified for the World Cup, they could do worse than appoint Hernan Dario Gomez as coach.
Known as El Bolillo (The Truncheon), Gomez became a national hero in Ecuador when he led the Andean nation to their
first-ever World Cup in 2002.
Sixteen years later, the straight-talking Colombian has repeated the trick with Panama.
For a long time, soccer was only the fourth most popular sport in the country of four million, behind boxing, basketball
and baseball, and Panama did not even enter the World Cup until the qualifiers for the 1978 tournament.
But its popularity has grown rapidly and in the last decade the team known as Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) have come on in leaps and bounds.
Since 2005, they have twice reached the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the semi-finals on another two occasions -- and it is the same generation of players who have taken them to Russia.
The squad oozes experience, with goalkeeper Jaime Penedo (36), defender Roman Torres (31), midfielders Gabriel Gomez (33) and Armando Cooper (nearly 30), forwards Blas Perez (36) and Luis Tejada (35) all having won around 100 caps or more.
Gomez has been in charge since February 2014.
Four years ago, Panama came tantalisingly close to qualifying when, needing a win to reach the intercontinental playoffs at Mexico's expense, they led the United States 2-1 after 90 minutes only to lose 3-2 in stoppage time.
This time the tables were turned as Panama produced a dramatic fightback to beat Costa Rica 2-1 in their final game, thanks in part to a controversial equaliser from Gabriel Torres, which replays clearly showed did not cross the line.
Fortunately for them, goalline technology was not used in that game.
Panama were still facing elimination until an 87th-minute goal by Roman Torres gave them a 2-1 win, allowing them to leapfrog both Honduras and United States and qualify directly for Russia.
A national holiday was declared and one politician suggested naming a stadium after the dreadlocked centre back as a tribute.
(Editing by Neville Dalton)