Not many 20-year-olds in world football have acquired quite the same amount of experience as up-and-coming goalkeeper Luis Mejia, the man who will be captaining Panama at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, set to begin on Friday 29 July.
Mejia is no stranger to FIFA World Cup™ competitions at this age level, having appeared as a tender 16-year-old at Canada 2007, where he was the undisputed first choice in the Canalero goal. Two years later he was on duty again in the qualifiers for Egypt 2009, though his team came up short, a failure they made up for this time around.
Now the second-choice keeper for the full national team, the young custodian has also made the move to Europe, continuing his education with French club Toulouse. However, as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview, his thoughts for now are firmly focused on Colombia 2011.
As Mejia explained, confidence is high in the Panama camp: “We’re just finishing off our preparations for Colombia. We need to work on just a couple of things but we’re on the right track and we’ll be in perfect shape for the finals.”
The Central Americans have been drawn in Group E along with Brazil, Egypt and Austria, and while Mejia has respect for all three of them, Panama will not in any way be overawed. “To be honest, we don’t know that much about Austria or Egypt, but if they’ve reached the World Cup then it must be for a reason,” he said. “We saw Brazil in the South American championship and we know they’ve got a great team. We respect all of them but we’re going to make them respect us too. We’re not scared and we’re very motivated.”
That motivation will be all the higher after Panama’s U-17s made history by reaching the second round at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 just a few weeks ago. “That’s definitely going to motivate us, and we’re also inspired by what the national team did at the Gold Cup,” said Mejia. “This is a very committed team that can make history and knows what it wants. Everyone will see that in Colombia.”
Making his way
“My agent, who’s Uruguayan, saw me play at Canada 2007 and invited me to go and play in his country,” continued Mejia, explaining the path his career has taken since his maiden FIFA U-20 World Cup appearance. “I accepted his offer and went to Fenix when I was still 16. I had to leave my family and my girlfriend behind, but they were six months that I’m never going to forget. Some big doors opened up for me and it was thanks to that that I was able to join Toulouse.
“I arrived there last winter but I haven’t played a single game yet and haven’t had the chance to show what I can do,” he added. “Toulouse is one of the best cities in France, with a lot of culture and very pretty too. Rugby is the number one sport there, but they’ve got a good project going and I think we can achieve big things. I’m going to carry on training hard and try to gain a place in the team.”
Not many sides at Colombia 2011 can count on players with previous experience in the competition. So how in Mejia’s opinion does this Panama team compare to the 2007 vintage? “The difference is that we didn’t have many people playing abroad then. Now we’ve got players in Uruguay, Italy, me in France, and even in Czech Republic. Playing in other countries gives us experience and that’s going to be reflected on the pitch.”
With so much international football already under his belt, Mejia will be Panama’s senior man in Colombia and is more than happy to pass his knowledge on to his less seasoned team-mates.
“I’ve been lucky enough to come up against great players like Sergio Aguero, Mauro Zarate, Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega,” Mejia said, wrapping up the interview. “It’s an advantage for me but it doesn’t make me better than anyone. My team-mates will sometimes ask me what it’s like to play in the World Cup, what kind of experience it is, and I try to support them any way I can. That’s the objective, that we’re mentally ready to make history.”