MEXICO CITY – The game is not going to be against the rival Mexico expected, but seven and a half months after the country’s worst performance in a World Cup in 44 years, Mexico will seek to restore a bit of its tarnished image when it plays the surprising Panama in the Gold Cup final.
With Jaime Lozano, their third coach in less than a year, the Mexicans will try to win their ninth Gold Cup title on Sunday.
Panama beat the U.S. to advance to its first final since 2013. The country is looking for its first Gold Cup championship.
“Usually, the dream final is the United States against Mexico, but that is not going to happen and it doesn’t matter to me,” said Lozano, who is an interim coach. “For me the goal is the same, if Panama is in the final it is because they did something better than the United States.”
Mexico and Panama recently played for third place in the CONCACAF Nations League and El Tri won 1-0 in what was the last match with Argentine coach Diego Cocca at the helm.
Cocca replaced his countryman Gerardo Martino, who was in charge at the World Cup in Qatar when Mexico failed to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time since 1978. But in the sixth of the seven games he managed, Cocca lost 3-0 to the Americans in the Nations League semifinals and was fired four days later.
That match was cut short in extra time by the referee because of disruptive homophobic chants from Mexico's fans in Las Vegas.
Lozano, who led Mexico to the bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was appointed for the job, but only for the Gold Cup.
Ten of the players who were with Lozano at the Olympics were included in the Gold Cup roster. Seven of them are regular starters.
“They have bought us our idea, not now but from the previous process (Olympics) and I have nothing more to say than thank them for their trust, for the way in which the game plans are executed,” said Lozano. “They decided that they wanted to be the best team in the tournament and bring the Gold Cup back home."
In route to the final, Mexico beat Honduras 4-0, then Haiti 3-1, lost to Qatar 1-0, beat Costa Rica 2-0 and Jamaica 3-0 in the semifinal.
Although on paper it looks like a dominant tournament, the Mexicans have had long periods during matches in which they have not played well.
That needs to change if the Mexicans hope to leave SoFi Stadium with their fists raised.
“Panama is a team that is clear about what they are playing, they not only attack well but also defend, they have a clear idea of their game and they have worked for a long time to develop it, they are in the final for a reason," Lozano said.
The Panamanians were in fifth place in the CONCACAF qualifiers for Qatar 2022, one away from the play-off spot that Costa Rica earned and eventually won to qualify for the World Cup.
Despite that failure, the Panamanian Federation re-signed Spaniard coach Thomas Christiansen.
“There has been an important evolution of the team, we have progressed, and it was important to have the trust of the federation because it was a disappointment not to go to the World Cup,” said Christiansen. “I don’t like the word failure because we did a lot of things right in the past, but maybe the fruits are going to come now."
Panama is in its first final since 2013 and just the third in its history. The other one was in 2005 and in both they lost to the U.S.
“The football that Panama has been playing has been very good, we have created scoring chances, we have controlled the matches and also we have improved defensively,” Christiansen said. “If we take all those features to the final, why not dream a little?"