Panama was once a punch line in CONCACAF football circles. Baseball and boxing were the little poverty-stricken nation's main pastimes. Roberto Duran's 'no mas' surrender in the classic bout with Sugar Ray Leonard and Mariano Rivera's unflinching, ice-water-in-the-veins strikeout style were some of the more prominent and iconic sporting cues in a country known more for its strategic canal and American influence than any devotion to the world's game.
But one Julio Cesar Dely Valdes, in no small measure, changed all of that. Twin brother to fellow icon Jorge, Julio spearheaded a golden generation of footballing talent in the southernmost country in Central America, becoming the first Panamanian player to achieve success overseas - earning the nickname 'Panagol' when he scored 110 times in four seasons with Nacional of Montevideo. His influence on the international scene culminated two years ago in a run to the final of the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup where the unlikely Canalaeros only just lost out to mighty hosts USA in a penalty shootout.
Predictably, a sense of what can only be described as Panamania took hold back home with partying and flag-waving in the streets of the capital following their remarkable, if ultimately unsuccessful, run. The impressive form also saw the senior side catapult nearly 50 places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in just seven months. Another indication of the country's rapid rise in the world's game would be the fact that their qualification for Canada 2007 means the U-20s have now reached three FIFA U-20 World Cups in a row .
And in a seemingly divine marriage, the country's best-ever
player, fast on his retirement from the pitch, has taken over the
reins of the U-20 side and, predictably, the big man has big plans
for his boys in Canada this June. The first order of business: a
win at a world finals.
"Our team is a group of tough and talented young guys," the former Cagliari, PSG and Malaga striker told FIFA.com. "They all have the desire to prepare properly and do the right things to represent their country during this World Cup in Canada. I am positive and sure of the fact that Panama is going to get her first win here in Canada this summer. You wait and see."
Beware Group E
Placed into one of the trickier and less predictable groups, Dely Valdes' motivated side will know they have their work cut out.
"Oh, what can I say! This is a very tough group we've found ourselves in here," the boss pronounced after learning he will need to navigate his team through a group also containing holders Argentina , Czech Republic and Asian champions Korea DPR. "There are some great teams to take on, but we are here to compete and show the world that football in Panama is growing every day. We are not just making little baby strides, but the culture of football and the level of play in our country is improving with each passing day."
After calling Argentina "favourites to win the whole thing," Dely Valdes admitted he was excited to be playing unknown packages Korea DPR in the first match, and sees the game a crucial turning point.
"I'm thrilled to be playing North Korea in our first match," he remarked. "After that game ends we will know a lot about our future and our hopes of making a splash. If we want to move on to the knockout stages and make people take notice of us, then we have to win this first match. Everything will balance on this. We have to beat these guys. Starting now, we will begin to study their style and then we will see.
"Czech Republic will be the typical tough and fast European team," Dely Valdes continued. We will need to be careful how we deal with them. All the teams from that part of the world can really do some damage to you, and we will have to work extremely hard to stick with them."
"We are expecting a lot of support in Ottawa as we know there are a lot of Panamanians living there," the Colon-born legend went on to add. "We will need to hear their voices. It will give us strength."
With proud, friendly voices from the terraces and the input of arguably the country's greatest footballer on the touchline and in the locker-room, perhaps brave and ever-improving Panama can scale the heights and make history up north in Canada.