Panama have never dared set their sights so high before.
Regarded for many years as one of the CONCACAF region's poor
Canaleros have long been overshadowed by their more
illustrious footballing neighbours Costa Rica, Honduras and El
Salvador, preferring instead to invest their hopes in alternative
pursuits such as baseball and basketball.
All that has changed in recent times, however. Runners-up in the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup and quarter-finalists in 2007, the southernmost country in Central America would appear to have a genuine chance of bucking history by qualifying for 2010.
And no player better embodies the Panamanian dream of stepping onto the biggest stage of all than their highly influential striker Blas Perez. The centre forward led the line with distinction for Colombia's Cucuta Deportivo in the recent Copa Libertadores de America, producing a string of performances that caught the eye of Spanish second division side Hercules. It was not long before a move to Alicante was sealed, giving Perez the chance to follow the trail blazed by some of Panama's most famous footballing sons.
Hot on the heels of Rommel and the Dely brothers
Ask Canalero fans to name the country's greatest ever footballer and you are sure to start up a heated debate. When it comes to the most popular player of all time, however, there is only one candidate: the late Rommel Fernandez.
Fourteen years on from his death, the tiny nation still mourns the tragic loss of its first major footballing hero, the first player of the modern era to cross the Atlantic and try his luck in Spain. Nicknamed El Panzer, he proved a star turn at Tenerife, Valencia and Albacete before his life was cruelly cut short by a car accident in 1993, a national tragedy that led to the Panama City Stadium being named after him.
The next players to take up the baton were the twins Julio and Jorge Dely Valdes. Although Jorge had his moments with Montevideo giants Nacional and a host of sides in the Japanese league, it was Julio who enjoyed the more successful career, impressing with Paris Saint-Germain in France prior to productive stints with Oviedo and Malaga in the Spanish top flight.
Since then the list of Panamanian exports has continued to grow, providing further evidence that the Canaleros are no longer a soft touch. Forward Jose Luis Garces has just put pen to paper on a three-year deal with CSKA Sofia, and fellow hitman Luis Tejada is now with MLS outfit Real Salt Lake.
Just to prove that strikers do not have all the fun, central defender and national team captain Felipe Baloy is a cornerstone of Mexican side Monterrey's back line, and trusty shotstopper Jaime Penedo has earned a place in the Osasuna squad, again in Spain.
Perez lets goals do the talking
Argentina's Boca Juniors may have carried off the Copa Libertadores yet again this season but it was Cucuta Deportivo who were the revelations of the tournament. A major factor in their wholly unexpected run to the semis was the goalscoring form of their hitherto unknown Panamanian sharpshooter, whose improbable exploits soon saw his name splashed all over the continent's sports pages.
Indeed, so dependent were the Colombians on Perez's goals that had he not be called up for international duty at the Gold Cup, the outcome of their semi-final against eventual champions Boca could have been very different. The Panamanian snared a brace in a 3-1 home win in the first leg, but shorn of his services in the return fixture at the Bombonera the Colombian upstarts slumped to a 3-0 defeat to go out of the competition.
His outstanding performances for club and country soon opened the way for a move to Europe, just reward for a player who has fought hard to make the grade. After coming through the ranks at Panama Viejo, Perez moved to Colombia at the age of 22, plying his trade with the unfashionable Envigado and Centauros Villavicencio before big guns Deportivo Cali snapped him up. That was not the end of his struggles though, and after failing to impress in Cali he was loaned out to Cucuta.
The rest, as they say, is history and four years on from leaving his homeland, Perez is enjoying the most fruitful phase of a career that is on the up-and-up, marking his debut appearance with the Alicante-based club with a goal just one minute in.
"The important thing is to score. These goals help me settle down, but I know things will be harder when the league starts," commented the man himself after scoring a second goal for his new employers. Although the hopes of a nation are resting on his shoulders, the talented yet down-to-earth front man is happy to bear the burden and fulfil the role of Panama's latest footballing missionary. "If I can do well hopefully it will open the way for some of my compatriots to play abroad too."