The names of Julio and Jorge Dely Valdes are inextricably linked with the history of Panamanian football. Outstanding performers for their country on the pitch, the twins have continued to serve Panama well since retiring, and are now steering their national teams to unprecedented levels of success.
The recently concluded 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup provides a measure of their progress. Under Julio’s stewardship, Los Canaleros finished runners-up, losing to tournament hosts USA in the final after beating Mexico twice on the way, a feat they had never achieved before.
It is not just the seniors who have been punching above their weight, however. An assistant coach to Julio with the full national team, Jorge has also been working wonders with Panama’s U-17s in recent years.
Speaking to FIFA.com a few weeks before he takes his youngsters to the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013, he gave an exclusive insight into the progress Panama’s teenage hopefuls have been making in recent years.
Paths to glory
The Central Americans’ rise to prominence can be traced back to the preliminaries for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 and was triggered by a change in approach implemented by the coaching staff, one that involved a lot of extra preparation and travelling.
“That was the first Panama team to reach the world finals in that age group,” said Jorge. “We’d never qualified before and the thing that made the difference was patience. I’d taken over the team a year and a half earlier, and we brought the boys together three or four months before the tournament.”
Describing his groundbreaking approach to the job, he said: “We also did something that had never been done before: we travelled the whole country looking for players to play in the team.”
It was a demanding job that nevertheless brought some special rewards, as Jorge explained: “It was on our travels that we discovered Roberto Chen, who is now with Malaga.”
Still only 19, Chen is now a permanent fixture in the full team, having captained the U-17 side that charted new territory by qualifying for Mexico 2011 and went still further by qualifying for the second round, where they lost to the hosts and eventual champions Mexico 2-0.
“It felt very special,” said Coach Valdes, who appeared for Panama in every FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competition between 1994 and 2006. “Qualifying for the finals and then getting through the group phase was a shot in the arm for us.”
Next stop UAE
That achievement has set the bar very high for Panama’s class of 2013 as they prepare to take on the world in the United Arab Emirates. Anything less than an improvement on the country’s showing at Mexico 2011 will be a cause for disappointment.
“This team is better than the previous one,” said Jorge of his current squad, which lost to the Mexicans in the final of the CONCACAF qualifiers. “We had a good qualifying competition and my feeling is that this team creates more goalscoring opportunities than the previous one.
“The players are very organised on the pitch,” he added. “We’re solid at the back and don’t concede many, but we always push forward really well down the flanks and we’ve got people up front who know how to take chances. We like to have possession of the ball.”
As well as having a well-balanced line-up, the Panamanians are also motivated, a defining characteristic of all Canalero sides these days. As Jorge went on to explain, psychology is an essential ingredient in Panama’s success story: “The best sides come together in the dressing room. We work on motivation with all the teams and I think that shows. As coaches we’re sometimes surprised to see the players using their own initiative on the pitch. You can tell they’re a tight-knit bunch.”
In qualifying for successive world finals, Panama’s teenagers have shown that solid foundations are in place and that the prospects for the full national side are bright. Expanding on that point, Jorge said: “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.”
Before they can get that far, however, Valdes’ prodigies have to impress in the UAE, where they will take on Croatia, Morocco and Uzbekistan in Group C.
Setting their objectives for the world finals, which start on 17 October, he said: “We’re looking to improve and we’re going there with the idea that we can go a lot farther.”
Time will tell if the Panamanians and their forward-thinking coach can do just that.