What is your name and home field location?
Odin Palacio. The players’ home field is in New York: the players coming to represent Panama are from New York, because in Philadelphia, there are not that many Panamanians — and if there are, they don’t all play soccer!
What is your connection to Panama?
I was born in Panama. In 2000, I moved to the United States. I got out of Panama with a scholarship to play basketball and go to school here…When I first came to Philadelphia, I found a purpose: to make Panama be known, to represent Panama and start building a community here in Philly. I think this is a great opportunity for me to do that, bringing the Panamanian team into this tournament so I can bring awareness and have Panamanians see that, hey, there is something going on in this city! That’s really the reason why I got Panama in the tournament, so I can start building the Panamanian community and make them part of everything that’s going on internationally inside Philadelphia.
What made you interested in participating in the Unity Cup?
The main idea here is to have Panama be part of what’s going on here internationally and to start building a community in the Philadelphia area. This is a great opportunity to do that, because Panama loves soccer! Panamanians love soccer, so I’m so excited about this, I’m beyond excited, because we’ll be able to start building from that.
How did your team come together?
The group of kids have been playing together. They are young, 18, full of energy, athletic, and they practice every week in New York. I like the group because there is discipline already. I like the coach. Me and the coach had several conversations about the team, and I like what he said as a coach, because I know it’s really not easy to bring a team together. This group of guys have never been outside of New York to play anywhere, and that’s one thing that intrigued me because I want to give them that experience. I like that they have been practicing and playing together. He focuses on discipline, and I know when you come to a foreign place, that’s the main thing you have to maintain, discipline, so with that right there? I said yeah, let’s do it. With discipline, I’m fine, whether we win the tournament or not! I just want to have fun and compete.
What does soccer mean to your community?
Soccer means everything. The fans [of the national team] call themselves “La Marea Roja,” the red tide, because Panama’s color is red, and we do the wave…so that’s something I want to bring to the Unity Cup. There are Panamanians already asking, “When are the games,” so I’ve been sharing the schedule with them.
Why is soccer important to you personally?
I always wanted to play soccer, I really love soccer, I’m just not good at it! I was always the tallest in my group of friends growing up, and I was the one with less skills in soccer. I was very good in basketball, they were like, “You gotta stick to basketball or be the goalkeeper,” because you know, most goalkeepers are tall. And I didn’t want to be the goalkeeper! I wanted to be the one out there handling the ball, doing all the tricks and stuff like that, putting the goals in, but they never gave me the opportunity. But still, I always loved it. My father was a very good soccer player, and for some reason I just came out as a basketball player, which got me out of the country with a scholarship, but I always loved soccer.
How has soccer made your life better?
It actually made me a better Panamanian. When it comes to Panama representing in tournaments and stuff like that, it’s really a great feeling to see a group of Panamanians just like you playing outside the country and having the support of their people. I love when they compete and have good games, and even when they don’t win, it’s still good because of the excitement and seeing people with the flags. That just makes me a better Panamanian and makes me love my country even more. So soccer is fun to me, I love it. I know being out there on that field, watching these Panamanian kids compete and represent the same flag, it’s gonna be insane. I can see me already just enjoying every moment of it.
Why do you think soccer is so popular around the world?
There are a few leagues that bring together the best players of the world, and every kid that plays soccer dreams of being on one of those top teams. Kids want to represent their country, they want to be known, and I’m telling you, those leagues and those teams really do something to the world. Because when those teams play, you can feel the tension, the excitement. It’s just amazing.
How do you think soccer in general (and the Unity Cup in particular) promotes inclusivity?
Calling it the Unity Cup was an amazing idea because now, in just the second year of having the tournament, it already grew in a major way. We’ve got 48 teams now! I can only imagine what it’s going to be like five years from now. We might even be looking at 100 teams in the tournament, who knows! I’m glad to be part of the group.
When I was at one of the meetings, the draw of the teams, the Mayor mentioned that it’s all about unity, bringing people together inside the city — and it was going on inside that room already. Everybody was just embracing each other, happy to meet each other, happy that they’re going to compete with each other. They were taking pictures, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, and Ukraine, all the countries, we were all shaking hands and hugging, and it was happening right there! We weren’t even on the field yet! So that’s what it’s about, and I feel amazing being part of that, being given the opportunity to represent my country, put my country on the map. That’s what it’s really all about: bringing people together. I’ve made it to every meeting, and in every meeting I just meet somebody with an accent like me, from another country, and I’m like… oh man, this is the best place to be! It was the best idea. It’s amazing.
What places (such as restaurants or cultural centers) or groups in Philadelphia would you recommend to someone if they wanted to learn more about Panamanian culture?
We’re working on that. Right now, we really don’t have anything in Philly besides the consulate in Old City, and us, the Panamanian Alliance. Through my music I’ve also been able to represent Panamanian culture. I get the chance to shake hands with people and tell them where I’ve come from.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about Panama?
The food! There’s so much to see in Panama, but as far as the food, we have a mixture of traditional and international tastes. In Panama, a lot of people descended from the Caribbean, so we have that Caribbean taste in our food, too. We’ve got a mix of that with the traditional Panamanian taste — we bring a lot to the table!
I would start with the food, and then I would follow with the music. Panama is huge in music. We have been very influenced by Jamaican music, so we just turned it into Spanish reggae, and we were able to influence others to come out with reggaeton.
There’s also the traditional dance and the typical dress, la pollera, a white dress that the women wear to dance. We have some native Indians still there in some areas of Panama. They dress with everything handmade, and the designs are amazing. What they do with their hands is amazing, we call it mola.