After their excellent start to the third phase of CONCACAF qualifying, Panama have their sights set on the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and what would be a historic first appearance at FIFA’s flagship event. And their confidence is well founded, with Los Canaleros yet to concede in Group C, where they lead the way with six points from two games, one of which was a morale-boosting away win against South Africa 2010 qualifiers Honduras.

One of the key members of the team is unquestionably the goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Not only is he yet to concede in this penultimate qualifying round, but he was beaten just twice in four games in the previous round. With potentially decisive home-and-away fixtures against Canada just around the corner, the vastly experienced custodian made time for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.

In-depth preparation
Jaime Penedo is enjoying Panama’s current fine form perhaps more than any one. Despite being just 30, the keeper has been his country’s first-choice custodian for almost a decade and has witnessed first hand the highs of lows of recent years. Who better then to analyse Los Canaleros’  impressive start in the race to Brazil 2014?

“We know there’s a long way to go yet,” he said with humility, “but it’s true we’ve started well – and that’s down to the great group that’s come together. Julio and Jorge [Dely Valdes, the brothers who are the team’s coach and assistant coach respectively] place a lot of emphasis of maintaining a group that’s united and strong in every sense. That’s been a key factor in things going well. On top of that, we realise we’re blessed to have this chance to bring a lot of joy to the country,” said the man who currently plays his club football for Guatemala’s Municipal.

 

We’ve started well – and that’s down to the great group that’s come together.

Jaime Penedo, Panama's goalkeeper

Behind the scenes, the Panamanian FA have been putting plenty of resources into the team’s quest for a maiden FIFA World Cup appearance. This was evidenced most recently in a friendly arranged against Portugal, semi-finalists at UEFA EURO 2012.

“Even though we lost 2-0, that was a positive experience overall,” insisted Penedo. “Going up against a team as competitive as that allowed us to identify things we need to work on ahead of this phase of qualifying, things we may not have discovered had we faced a different opponent,” he added.

Success all the sweeter
For all the optimism, Panama’s players and fans still have painful memories of the team’s disappointing exit at the start of qualifying for South Africa 2010. Despite being clear favourites, La Roja lost out to El Salvador in a two-legged qualifier to reach the first group phase.

For Penedo, though, that experience has given the team an even stronger foundation. “Yes, it was sad, but you need to learn lessons from every failure. We have a more mature group now and we know what we aspire to. The defeat made us more responsible for the great opportunity we have in front of us.”

Next on the horizon are back-to-back fixtures against Canada, and good results against the Canucks would represent a giant step towards the final hexagonal qualifying round. Though well aware of this, the keeper is mindful of past disappointments and is urging his side not to get overconfident: “There is still a long way to go. We’ve taken important steps towards our goal, but we have achieved nothing yet. And until that happens we need to just keep going one step at a time.”

Prudence does not mean you give up the right to dream, however, and Penedo remains firmly focused on his primary objective: Brazil 2014. “We’re mentally ready to fight all the way to reach our first World Cup at senior level. We’ll battle to the end to reach our goal, make no mistake about that,” he vowed.

Can he picture himself in the Maracana when the action gets underway in less than two years? Penedo is unequivocal and ends our conversation on an upbeat note. “Every day I dream of being in Brazil, so I know that every day I need to strive to get there. I want to fight to give my compatriots this joy and repay them for my good fortune in being able to participate in this quest.”