They are still thinking about what might have been in Panama, casting their minds back to their last game in the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, when they led USA 2-1 heading into stoppage time and were on the verge of reaching the intercontinental play-off. 

It was then that the USA’s Graham Zusi ghosted into the box and headed home a cross from the left, a goal that ultimately ended Panama’s qualification dream and gave Mexico, who were going out at that stage, the right to face New Zealand for a place at Brazil 2014.

Though their campaign ended in dejection, Los Canaleros had nevertheless shown how much they had progressed, earning themselves plenty of respect in the region and a significant rise in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, in which they now lie 29th. charts Panama’s inexorable climb to that lofty position, their highest ever in the Ranking. 

The Dely Valdes factor
The story began back in September 2010, in the wake of their attempt to reach that year’s world finals in South Africa, which ended in defeat to El Salvador in the second round. That devastating setback left them in a lowly 97th place in the Ranking. 

In response, there were some big decisions that had to be made, and one of them involved the appointment of legendary former international Julio Dely Valdes as head coach. Handed a ten-month contract, Valdes set out to show what he could do in the following year’s Copa Centroamericana and CONCACAF Gold Cup.

His side finished third in the first of those two competitions, going down to a penalty-shootout defeat to Costa Rica in the semi-finals. They also narrowly missed out on a place in the final in the second, this time losing to USA in the last four. In both tournaments, however, the Central Americans showed they were making big strides. 

Discussing the contribution made by Dely Valdes and his assistant coach and twin brother Jorge, goalkeeper Jaime Penedo had this to say to in an exclusive interview last year: “They’ve instilled a lot of discipline and focus in the side, both on and off the pitch, and they’ve also made us a very tightly knit unit that is a real team in its approach to the game. That’s one of the keys to the success we’ve been having lately.”

Within a year of Dely Valdes’ appointment Panama had shot up to 53rd, a significant improvement that led to the siblings being given the job of taking the side into the qualifiers for Brazil 2014. 

Victorious in all their matches in the second round, Panama were drawn into Group C in the third, where they left Canada and Cuba by the wayside in finishing second behind Honduras. In the process of reaching the final six-team qualification group they moved up to 46th place in the Ranking, having climbed a whole 51 slots since Julio Dely Valdes settled into the hotseat. 

Speaking to last September, Jorge revealed Panama’s recipe for success: “The best sides come together in the dressing room. We’ve tried to instil a philosophy that runs from the youth teams all the way up to the seniors. That makes it easier for younger players to settle in if they do make it to the full team.”

Full steam ahead
Los Canaleros began that final phase by drawing at home to Costa Rica and away to Jamaica, before impressively seeing off Honduras to score their first win. By the time they visited Mexico at the Estadio Azteca for their penultimate game they had eight points in the bank.

Raul Jimenez’s superb late bicycle-kick denied the Panamanians a valuable draw, however, and left the battle for the play-off place open to the last round of matches, with Dely Valdes’ men needing to beat the Americans and hope Costa Rica could do likewise against El Tri.

Things almost went to plan. While Los Aztecas were falling to a 2-1 defeat in San Jose, Panama were leading the Stars and Stripes by the same scoreline with just injury time remaining. It was then that Zusi appeared from nowhere to dash the Canalero dream.

With Julio Dely Valdes having since moved on and Hernan Gomez now in charge, Panama will again watch the finals from home, just as they did four years ago. The difference is that this time they stand a whole 68 places higher in the Ranking and have every reason to be optimistic ahead of the qualifying competition for Russia 2018.