Panama is stepping in as a late replacement for Iran for Sunday's men's soccer friendly against Canada in Vancouver.
Giving way to mounting criticism about hosting Iran at B.C. Place Stadium, Canada Soccer announced last Thursday it was cancelling the planned friendly while acknowledging "we will strive to do better moving forward." The governing body has been looking for a replacement opponent ever since, knowing the June international window is just one of two FIFA breaks before the World Cup kicks off in November.
Panama is ranked 61st in the world, 40 places below Iran. Like No. 38 Canada, it had to go through two rounds of qualifying just to reach the final stage in CONCACAF.
Canada is 4-6-2 all-time record against Panama, including 4-0-0 at home.
Panama was an early surprise in the final round of World Cup qualifying, losing just one of its first five matches (2-1-2) while tying Mexico and beating the U.S. It then ran into Canada, losing 4-1 at Toronto's BMO Field last October.
A late surge allowed Costa Rica to move past Panama into fourth spot when the qualifying round was complete, sending the Costa Ricans into a qualifying playoff with New Zealand later this month in Doha. Panama (6-5-3) finished fifth, four points behind Costa Rica (7-3-4)
Panama edged visiting Canada, which had already sealed qualification by then, in the final qualifying game for both in March.
Canada Soccer said tickets in the lower bowl for the Panama match are priced at $30 "to thank Canadian fans for their support in light of the recently cancelled international match and to provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada Soccer's men's national team."
Canada already has two CONCACAF National League games scheduled in the June window, hosting No. 79 Curaçao on June 9 at B.C. Place Stadium before heading to San Pedro Sula to take on No. 82 Honduras on June 13.
The choice of Iran as opponent sparked a firestorm with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Conservative MPs and B'nai Brith Canada among those decrying the game.
The Canadian players were also part of the debate, with a player representative emailing a senior Canada Soccer official in the 24 hours before the game was nixed. The message was the team had concerns about the opponent.
At issue was whether Canada should host Iran given the Canadians who died on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 when it was shot down on Jan. 8, 2020, minutes after taking off from Tehran, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. The Canadian government says 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among the 176 people killed.
For Canada Soccer, the Iran contest was seen as a rare chance to test the Canadian men against a team outside of its CONCACAF confederation, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Canadians have played just two teams from outside their region since John Herdman took over as coach in January 2018: a 1-0 loss to Iceland in January 2020 and a 1-0 win over New Zealand in March 2018.
Canada has not played on home soil since qualifying for the World Cup in a 4-0 win over Jamaica at Toronto's BMO Field on March 27. The Canadian men last played at B.C. Place in March 2019 when they beat French Guiana 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying.
The Canadians topped the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with an 8-2-4 record — and went 14-2-4 through three rounds of qualifying. Their last game was a 1-0 loss in Panama on March 30.
Canada opens World Cup play Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 24 Morocco on Dec. 1.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 202
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press