Ex-U.S. coach Bruce Arena: Panama's penalties never called in CONCACAF qualifying

Former United States coach Bruce Arena believes the two penalties that England earned in their 6-1 World Cup rout of Panama on Sunday would not have been given in CONCACAF qualifying.

Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha awarded England a pair of penalties when Fidel Escobar and Roman Torres knocked over Jesse Lingard, and when Anibal Godoy wrestled Harry Kane to the ground. That led to two successful spot kicks by Kane as England built a 5-0 lead.

But Arena, who took over midway through the U.S.'s World Cup qualifying campaign but could not lead them to Russia, said Panama would have gotten away with the incidents back home and said sub-par refereeing in the region hurts teams when they advance to the global stage.

"The things that happened today with Panama were typical of CONCACAF competition, but they're never punished for it," Arena told the Associated Press. "In my view, the officiating hurts the progress of the region. You'd have to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer for them to call a penalty kick in CONCACAF."

CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani took Arena's criticism in stride.

"That's a bit of hyperbole from Bruce," he said. "We're always trying to improve refereeing. I think in this last qualifying, it's the best I've seen it in a long time in CONCACAF. Obviously, spoken like a true coach, Bruce has always been griping about referees."

Panama, beaten 3-0 by Belgium in their opener, looked like they did not belong on the same pitch in the first half as England, leading many to question how such a team qualified ahead of the United States.

The U.S. beat Panama 4-0 in their home qualifier but were held to a draw in Panama City. Meanwhile, Panama were able to take four points off of Costa Rica -- with the win coming in the final match after Los Ticos had already qualified -- while the U.S. lost both of their games to Costa Rica, who have also lost their first two games in Russia.

Panama ended up ahead of Honduras on goal difference and one ahead of the U.S. in the final qualifying table, and Arena said Panama's performance should not reflect on the competitive level of CONCACAF as a whole.

"Mexico is a good, solid team. So is Costa Rica. Panama is an inferior team in the competition," Arena said. "I feel strongly that we should have been the third team, but we have no one to blame but ourselves."

If Mexico moves on to the knockout rounds, 13 of 24 CONCACAF teams (54 percent) will have reached the round of 16 since 1990: Mexico seven times, the U.S. four and Costa Rica twice.

This will be CONCACAF's first World Cup since 2006 with fewer than two teams in the knockout stage, and Montagliani defended the region's record.

"I think we have a long way to go," Montagliani said. "We still rank behind only UEFA and CONMEBOL in terms of points per game in World Cups historically, but obviously now our fate in terms of a run is in the hands of Mexico."

Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach from 1995-98 said England's victory would not have come so easily had they been facing the Americans instead.

"If the United States had qualified, we would have done much better than Costa Rica and Panama," Sampson told the AP. "I know that Panama finished ahead of the United States in the qualification phase, but with all the previous experience the United States would have, I've got to believe and I do believe that they would have done much better than Costa Rica and Panama in this World Cup."

Former U.S. forward Taylor Twellman, now an ESPN analyst, told the AP that Panama's performance brought back bad memories.

"It's an extra twist of the knife,'' Twellman said. "It's another reminder that the failure to qualify is an absolute debacle."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.