At the age of 27, Felipe Baloy has grown into a mainstay of the Panama national team, as well as a figurehead for the most talented generation of players ever to come out of his country. The challenge ahead of the well-travelled centre-back and his fellow internationals is this: to help Panama reach their first ever FIFA World Cup™ finals.

With just a few days to go before the start of qualifying for South Africa 2010, the burly central defender talked exclusively to about his dream of gracing the showpiece competition and cementing football's status as Panama's most popular sport.

New regional hierarchy
Speaking from the Panamanian team hotel, Baloy can hardly wait for the opening match against El Salvador to get underway. "I'm really happy because we've got some really big games coming up. The whole country is really looking forward to it and we the players hope to make history by getting to the World Cup finals for the first time."

Panama's recent results are up there with the best in the CONCACAF region and this has given both team and supporters a shot in the arm. "The preparations are coming along very well and we're very hopeful we can get through this phase and battle for a place in the finals," says Baloy, who currently plays for Mexican side Monterrey. "We know it won't be easy because El Salvador have a very good Mexican coach (Carlos de los Cobos), some quality players and plenty of pace. We will have to be bang on form and not approach the game with over-confidence."

A few years back, Panama would not have been considered favourites to put one over the Salvadorans, who have twice made it to the FIFA World Cup finals. What has brought about this improvement in Panamanian fortunes? "It's that our guys have gone off to play abroad. This has been very important because on top of this they're managing to hold down a place with their clubs and consistently perform at a very high level," says Baloy. "Also, I think that bringing in coaches from abroad has been fundamental, as in the case of Jose Cheche Hernandez in the past and now Alexandre Guimaraes."

Examples to follow
Indeed, the defender has only praise for Guimaraes, who previously enjoyed considerable success at the helm of the Costa Rican national side. "Guimaraes likes to work and loves what he does. He has helped us a huge amount in training," says Baloy of the Brazilian-born strategist. "He communicates the experience he gained from playing and coaching at World Cups and is teaching us how to get it for ourselves. That's given us the freedom to dream that we'll soon be able to reach the World Cup too."

And the Panamanians' good results have not gone unnoticed at home. In the past, the most popular sports in the country were baseball and basketball, but the triumphs of the Roja have changed all that. "Football has come on hugely and people now no longer see it as a second- or third-rate sport," states Baloy. "Every time the national team plays people really take an interest and want to know how they're doing."

The defender is proud of being a standard-bearer for the current generation, and to be following in the footsteps of childhood heroes such as the Dely Valdes brothers, Rommel Fernandez and Franklin Morocho Delgado. "I'm happy that we've brought about this change in our fortunes but I think we need to keep the good results coming if we intend to keep making progress," underlined the player, a big admirer of former Spain star Fernando Hierro. "We must keep on showing that we are good players and have a fine team."

European ambition
Baloy also harbours ambitions of playing in the European game, having thus far represented clubs in Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. "It's a dream I've always had. I think now is the right moment for me to go to Europe; the experience I have accumulated in the teams I have played in has made me a better player. I'm just hoping for the opportunity to show what I can do."

And where does Felipe Baloy think he will be in five years' time? "Hopefully by then Panama will have had the opportunity to play at a World Cup and set an example for the youngsters in our country, so they keep on playing football. If we could make it to South Africa the sport's popularity would grow. It goes without saying I'd still like to be playing by then."

For the time being, however, the defender's mission is to lead his team to victory against the Salvadorans. "It's an opportunity we must not waste. It's a momentous time for the squad and we must not allow our dream to slip away."