PANAMA CITY - Outside the stadium gates Monday a host of venue staff, fans and media held out their hands to greet the Canadians as they filed into the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
Minutes later, a man was ejected from the premises for appearing to rub coffee beans on his palms before touching Canada’s players as they walked by, a type of superstition in Panama which is supposed to bring a great deal of bad luck to enemies.
“The people are passionate about their football here,” Canadian captain Kevin McKenna said after hearing of the incident. “In one way it’s good to see, but maybe they overdo it a little bit. I think you’re going to see an amazing atmosphere here”
The Canadians were given a taste of that in-stadium atmoshphere Sunday night when a group of 150 Panamanian supporters gathered in front of Canada’s hotel in the city’s downtown and banged drums late into the evening.
Despite warnings from local riot police, Panama’s fanatical supporters, La Extrema Roja, fulfilled promises Monday night to increase the numbers outside Canada’s hotel, blasting music, whistles, car horns and drums late into the night in an effort to prevent Canada’s players from sleeping.
“We’ve got to get used to playing in these environments,” Canadian defender David Edgar said of the noise. “If you don’t thrive in playing in atmospheres like this, then why are you playing?”
His head coach offered a more light-hearted approach to the disturbance.
“I’ve got three kids at home so I’m conditioned,” Stephen Hart said. “It’s normal.”
Following training Monday, Canada’s bus was reportedly boxed in and cutoff by a number of local drivers.
While Panama has a fairly safe and respectful fan base compared to its Central American neighbours, the Canadians will likely have to deal with at least a few projectiles and liquids “Marea Roja” will almost certainly hurl tonight.
“This is what we live for,” Julian de Guzman said. “I know it’s not in our favour but ... (we) know that when you come into these hostile environments they’re going to come in and try and knock us off our game. Once the whistle is blown it’s about who’s the best on the pitch.”
A TOP-NOTCH VENUE ...
During the current World Cup qualifying cycle Canada has played on a cricket oval in St. Lucia, an ant hill-laden pitch in St. Kitts, dried up crab grass in Cuba and a baseball diamond in Puerto Rico.
And while the stadium conditions in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, next month will be a nightmare, tonight’s CONCACAF venue can’t be used as an excuse if Canada comes out on the wrong end.
“It’s a fantastic pitch,” Edgar said of the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. “It’s wet and it’s perfect conditions so far. Hopefully it stays like this.”
But there’s disagreement as to which side a wet pitch favours. After steady rain water logged the venue Monday, many say damp grass favours the Panamanians, who are used to playing in the wet and humid conditions of Central America.
“I’m not sure (who it favours),” head coach Stephen Hart said. “I think on a wet pitch the ball moves really, really well and our ball possession has been good. I think it’s probably going to be balanced in terms of the possession.”
Amid the chain-linked fences that are meant to prevent fan pitch invasions, a full-sized track around the field significantly increases how far supporters are from the game — something Canada’s players made note of Monday.
“We’ve got the track around the field so hopefully that takes out some of the atmosphere,” Edgar said.
CANADA ARE ‘CHEATERS’
A local radio pundit Monday described the Canadians as “cheaters” due to a few of the extracurricular activities during the second half of last Friday’s match in Toronto.
With Canada leading 1-0 late in the match, a ball went into touch just in front of Canada’s bench, where third-string ’keeper Kenny Stamatopoulos grabbed it and slid under Canada’s row of chairs to prevent the opposition from taking a quick throw-in.
Stamatopoulos’ actions set off a brief melee in front of Canada’s bench when a Panamanian player began pushing the Canadians in an effort to quickly grab the ball to restart play.
“I thought the game in Canada was clean,” McKenna said, denying any of the miniature scuffles last week affected the team. “There wasn’t any dirty fouls ... I hope it’s more of the same and I hope it’s a good battle.”
Supporters also didn’t appreciate Dwayne De Rosario’s game-winning goal in the 77th minute, which came as a result of a quick restart that caught the Panamanian defence out of position.
Panamanian head coach Julio Dely Valdes said earlier this week that he’s “convinced” Canada won’t score again on La Roja.
Trash-talking aside, don’t be surprised if a few less-than-honest moments cause a stir close to both benches tonight.