Panama have never before reached a FIFA U-17 World Cup, although the one-time CONCACAF minnows have been improving at every age level and category over the course of the last decade. Their senior national team pushed the United States to a penalty shootout in the final of the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup and their U-20 side has been to the World Cup three times in a row: UAE 2003, Netherlands 2005 and Canada 2007. Hoping to expand on their climb up the pecking order in the New World, the U-17 finals in Mexico offer a unique opportunity for the Canaleros to make up more ground.
Panama arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica for the qualifying tournament with little realistic hope of reaching through to the finals. However, led by coach and former playing idol Jorge Dely Valdes, the Central Americans got off to a confident start and managed to maintain their momentum and finish an eventual third among the region’s big boys. They looked a sturdy lot even while losing their opening match to eventual champions USA 1-0, and they built on the positives of that performance by securing a 0-0 draw with Cuba that saw them move into the quarter-finals, even without having scored a goal. They got their first when it counted, though, with a 1-0 win over heavy favourites Costa Rica putting them into the semi-finals and qualifying them for Mexico. After losing their semi 1-0 to Canada, they beat the hosts by the same score to secure a place on the podium.
A combination of organisation, spirit and luck saw the Panamanians into the finals in Mexico. But it will take more than that to prosper at the world finals, with some of the globe’s best players on offer. Even so, Dely Valdes is confident in his team’s chances. “This is a big moment for Panama and I am proud of my players,” said the coach, who played in the famous 2005 Gold Cup side. “Now we have to build ourselves up again and focus on performing at the World Cup.”
|DELY VALDES Jorge|