An unknown in the game two and a half years ago, Panamanian centre-half Roberto Chen has since enjoyed a meteoric rise.
As well as making his Spanish league debut with new employers Malaga, he has also been very active on the international front, helping the national U-17 team break new ground, collecting a CONCACAF Gold Cup runners-up medal, and playing his part in taking Los Canaleros to the brink of their first FIFA World Cup™ finals.
As the 19-year-old explained to FIFA.com, it has all been a bit of a blur. “If I sit down and reflect on what I’ve achieved in just two years, I think I’m entitled to feel happy, aren’t I? But that’s what you work towards.
“In 2010 I joined San Francisco’s professional club, made my debut the year after and now I’m in the biggest league in the world, something I dreamed about when I was a kid. I never thought I’d get my chance so fast. All I’m doing now is trying to make the most of my opportunity, get some playing time under my belt, and learn.”
Yet another of the youngster’s dreams is moving into reach, with Panama currently lying fourth in the final six-team group in the CONCACAF qualifying competition for Brazil 2014. Should they still be there after their next two games, they will advance to an intercontinental play-off against New Zealand. First of all, however, Chen and Co must negotiate a daunting visit to Mexico’s Estadio Azteca a week on Friday.
“It’s a final!” said Chen. “We know Mexico aren’t playing their best football, but we still need to respect them because they’ve got some great players. They’re seen as giants in the region but I don’t think that’s the case any more because teams are a lot more evenly matched now. We beat them twice in the Gold Cup and that should give us a bit more confidence.”
Staying on the subject of the crucial qualifier, Chen said: “We can get a good result if we do things right. Honduras have already shown they [Mexico] can be beaten at home. It’s a crucial match but we have to stay calm and think positively because we can seal our place in the finals at the Azteca.”
As it happens, victory over the Mexicans would not secure the Panamanians a ticket to Brazil, though it would undoubtedly represent a giant step in that direction.
“Ever since I was a boy I’ve dreamed about seeing Panama at the World Cup, and here I am now forming part of the side that might just do it,” he added. “It’s just amazing. It might look easy from the outside, but I can tell you just how hard it is. I can’t imagine how crazy things would be in Panama if we actually made it. It would be historic.
“I think they’d give the whole country the day off,” he continued with a laugh. “There’s a lot of excitement in the air. We’ve done well, and though luck’s deserted us now and again in some of our earlier games, we’re only two matches away and in a good position. We’re really going to go for it and give it everything we’ve got.”
The Dely Valdes factor
Panamanian football has two siblings to thank for the huge impact it is now making: twin brothers Jorge and Julio Dely Valdes. A direct beneficiary of their approach to coaching, Chen has nothing but praise for them.
“They’ve changed the way we see football in our country,” explained the teenage star. “Since they took over the national teams we’ve seen a radical change that’s also been felt at club level, with the league being more competitive now. And you can tell that we’re getting more respect in international competitions now as well.”
Recalling his first steps in the game, the Malaga stopper said with a smile: “Like every kid, I started out as a striker. Coach Jorge was the first to see me as a centre-back and he put me there in the national U-17 team.”
After appearing at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, Chen was promoted to the full national side by Jorge’s brother Julio that same year.
“He asks me to work hard and keep it simple,” said the youngster of his current coach. “It’s a tough position to play in because there’s no margin for error. After all, you’ve got the goal right behind you.”
Discussing his rapid rise though the ranks in 2011, Chen added: “I played in all the national teams in a single year. I qualified for the world finals with the U-17s and played in them, and I took part in the U-20 team’s preparations for their world finals but couldn’t go because it was too close to the U-17 World Cup. Then I played for the U-23s in the qualifiers for the Olympic Games before finally being lucky enough to play for the full team.
“It was a very fulfilling year for me on a professional level, but then I picked up a bad injury with my club and that held me up.”
In his progression through the Canalero ranks Chen has been guided all the way by the Dely Valdes twins: “They work very well together and they’re just the same. They’re identical, both in the way they work and the way they look. I can tell them apart by their eyes, though.”
Citing Sergio Ramos, Thiago Silva and David Luiz as his footballing role models, Chen is more than happy to receive the advice of veteran team-mate Felipe Baloy, even if there are occasions when his senior partner’s advice is delivered in frank fashion.
Laughing it off, Chen said: “He might express himself a bit strongly at times but that’s just the way he is. He’s positive and constructive with his criticism, and he’s helped me a lot, just like the rest of the dressing room. They gave me a warm welcome and they’re helping me to grow.”
In return, the ambitious Chen is helping football close the gap on baseball as Panama’s number one sport. The possibility of a place at Brazil 2014 has raised expectations across the country, and this month’s two crucial qualifiers could well prove a watershed in both the history of Panamanian football and the career of a young player who is going places fast.