2011 was a magical time for Panama’s Roberto Chen, one in which he went down in his country’s footballing history as the first player to appear for Los Canaleros’ U-17, U-20 and senior teams in the same year.
Chen skippered the youngest of those three teams as Panama made its FIFA U-17 World Cup debut at Mexico 2011, where they fought their way through to the Round of 16 before being knocked out by the hosts and eventual champions.
The next world finals in the age group are about to get underway in the United Arab Emirates, with Panama once again appearing. Now a member of the Canalero side that was cruelly bounced out of the hunt for a place at Brazil 2014 at the final hurdle, Chen gave an indication of what his young compatriots can expect when he spoke to FIFA.com about his experiences in Mexico two years ago.
“I was lucky enough to captain that U-17 side and the U-20s too,” explained the young, muscular centre-half, who plays his club football for Malaga in Spain's top-flight. “When you’re in that role you have to set an example. You have to stand up and be counted, keep pushing your team-mates on and speak for the players. It’s a big responsibility and you’ve got to work hard at it.”
He added: “The best memory for me was when we qualified. It was the first time for the national team and … (sighs). A moment like that is priceless. It stays with you forever. It was my first World Cup and it gave me the chance to take on the best teams in the world.”
Breaking new ground
Drawn into Group E at Mexico 2011, Panama lost 2-1 to Ecuador and 2-0 to Germany before opening their account with a 1-0 defeat of Burkina Faso. “It was a very hard match,” said the 19-year-old, casting his mind back. “It sticks in my mind, though, because it was Panama’s first ever win in a World Cup match. What I remember most is the joy of celebrating Jorman Aguilar’s goal and the happiness we felt at the end of the game.
“In the last 16 we lost in to Mexico, who went on to win the competition,” added the defender, who also helped the U-20s reach their world finals that year in Colombia, though he was unable to play in them due to the tournament coming straight after the U-17 finals.
As he went on to say, Chen learned one very important lesson at Mexico 2011: “Not to forget my screw-in studs.”
Explaining why, he remarked: “It rained a lot the day before the Mexico game and it was pouring again on matchday. There were puddles all over the pitch and when we got to the stadium I realised that I didn’t have my screw-in studs with me. I remember Prof Jorge (Dely Valdes) telling me off. Oh my! I felt terrible. It’s something you shouldn’t forget, especially when you’re captain.
“I can laugh about it now, but at the time … The boss had a real go at me and it was the most important match of the competition too. It was not nice I can tell you! These days I take loads of screw-ins with me everywhere.”