In footballing terms, the past week is one Panama would surely like to forget. Such was the impact of the last-minute defeat against USA that shattered their 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying hopes, that the nation’s U-17 side is still reeling from the blow. The young Canaleros lost 2-0 to Uzbekistan in their opening match at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s not like we’re looking for revenge at this tournament for the painful elimination of our senior side,” said coach Jorge Dely Valdes, “but it’s logical that it affected us and that there’s now a feeling that Panama’s footballing pride is on the line.”
The disappointment runs deep, especially as Valdes is the twin brother of Julio Cesar, coach of the country’s seniors. “We spoke to him after the game with USA,” Jorge said. “He was hurting of course, but he knows that they gave everything to reach a first World Cup. Even though this is something completely different, we’re going to do everything we can to give our people something to smile about.”
For that to happen, Panama will need to improve on their performance in their opening fixture, where they fell to two goals from set-pieces. For Valdes, that was surprising and frustrating in equal measure: “Despite the fact that we played a great opponent, they scored twice from dead-ball situations. I think it might have been a lack of concentration, so we’re going to analyse closely what happened to try and improve and to not make the same mistakes again in the next match.”
Panama arrived in the United Arab Emirates intent on going further than they did at Mexico 2011, their tournament debut at this level. Back then the side, also under Valdes’ charge, reached the Round of 16 before being knocked out by the hosts and eventual winners.
While Los Canaleros may not have had the best start in the Middle East, Valdes remains optimistic about his team’s prospects: “It’s a short tournament and the sides that make the most of their chances are the ones that will progress to the next round. That’s what we’re working towards. We’re trying to correct our mistakes and are only thinking about winning to get to the next stage.”
Panama are in Group C, which, on paper at least, appears to be one of the most evenly-balanced at the competition. “Before arriving at the tournament we knew we wouldn’t just be facing the Asian champions Uzbekistan, but also the powerful European side Croatia,” said Valdes. “It’s going to be tough on Monday, even though they come into the game on the back of losing to Morocco. We’ve got to play better than we’ve done so far.”
Valdes has already identified the two key aspects that undid his side in their opening fixture: nerves and inexperience: “There was a certain anxiety about playing in the first match after waiting so long for it. Maybe some players weren’t at the top of their game at times against Uzbekistan, and it showed. At this level, everything that’s happened helps us to learn so that in the next match they’ll do better.”