These are heady times for Panamanian football. No sooner have the full national team muscled their way into the Central American elite, than their younger compatriots have started to make regular appearances in FIFA’s youth competitions.
While the U-20 side have now qualified for four of the last five FIFA U-20 World Cups, including Colombia 2011, the U-17s have also just made sure of a place at Mexico 2011 - the first time Los Canaleros have reached a FIFA U-17 World Cup finals. The man who steered them there is none other than iconic former striker Jorge Dely Valdes, who broke off from his squad’s preparations to offer FIFA.com an exclusive assessment of their chances in the competition.
The sudden upturn in Panama’s footballing fortunes owes little to good fortune. Much work has gone into raising standards across the country, a process on which Dely Valdes can shed some useful insight: “We’ve done a lot of work in the last few years at youth level to give young players an opportunity and the tools to succeed, and since my brother Julio took charge of the senior team, he’s been trying to bed in young players and speed up their development.
“For example, the U-20 players Harold Cummings, Eric Davis and the goalkeeper Kevin Melgar joined up with the full team at the Central American Cup, where Davis managed to hold down a place for himself,” continues the coach, putting names to some of the faces behind Panama’s sudden emergence.
“Roberto Chen, the U-17 captain, has also played for the U-20s, and when we went with the full team to Cuba for a friendly, we took the U-17 keeper as a reserve so that he could rub shoulders with established figures like Jaime Penedo and Felipe Baloy.”
Other factors in the Panamanian success story are the desire for continuity and a painstaking nationwide search for talent. “We’ve been given a long time to work with this team,” Dely Valdes explains. “When we took over we went to Costa Rica for the UNCAF Cup, and even though we hadn’t had much time to prepare we still managed to reach the final, losing 3-1 to the hosts.
"We knew though that we still had a lot of work to do, and when we got back home the coaching team toured the country, called up all the regional U-17 teams and picked the best players.”
Having identified the right personnel, all that remains to be done now is to get them ready for Mexico. Though, as the coach points out, that will be easier said than done: “We started our preparations last Monday, but we can’t get into any rhythm because some of the players have to play midweek games for their clubs. I need them here full-time and I’ve sent off a few letters to try and make that happen.”
Despite the obstacles, expectations are high among the fans and players. The question is, can the Panamanians live up to them in Mexico? Dely Valdes sounds a note of caution: “This is our first World Cup appearance in the category. Panama had never even got through a single qualification phase before. And as soon as we did, we’ve had all these new experiences.
"We reached the qualifying tournament proper, we came through that and now here we are on the big stage. We’re going to try and get things right of course, and we’re hoping to go as far as we can. But it’s all about taking one step at a time.”
Cautious he may be, Dely Valdes is also confident in his side’s abilities. “Our main asset has always been our physical strength and we’ve got some very speedy players too,” he says. “Panama have also improved a lot as a team, and this U-17 side is strong in every area. We’ve come across a settled side thanks to the tournaments we’ve been playing and we have balance now, which is going to be very important.”
Dely Valdes is also an assistant coach with the full national side, and before he signs off he quashes rumours that he may miss Mexico 2011 to join the seniors at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which is being held in the USA at the same time. “I’m not going to leave the team because I’ve got a strong bond with the boys,” he confirms.
“There was some speculation that I’d be around for the first few games at the Gold Cup because I’ve got the whole of May to work with the U-17s. We’ll see, though. This is the first time we’ve reached a World Cup in the category, and I’m going to be there.”