Panama are the only side in the final six-team qualifying group in the CONCACAF Zone that has yet to appear at the FIFA World Cup™ – a record they are hoping to set straight by making it to Brazil 2014.
Los Canaleros are currently right on course to achieve that objective, having accumulated five points in their opening three games to lead the section from Costa Rica. That haul represents a marked improvement on the two points they managed from ten games in the final stage of qualifying for South Africa 2010.
One of their not-so-secret weapons is the well-travelled 31-year-old Luis Tejada, who plays for Mexican club Toluca and is the Panamanian national team’s leading all-time scorer with 35 goals. Looking ahead to next month’s crucial qualifier against El Tri in Panama City, the physically imposing striker gave an exclusive interview with FIFA.com and discussed his side’s chances of success.
Quality and experience to match
Nicknamed El Matador, Tejada made his professional debut for local club Tauro in 2001, a year in which his side reached the Panamanian championship play-off final. His performances in the national league eventually brought him a move to Colombia, where he played for Deportes Tolima and Envigado. After then trying his luck in the United Arab Emirates, he returned to Colombia and had a spell in Peruvian football before winding up at Toluca in August 2012.
“It’s not been easy for me in Mexico,” he acknowledged to FIFA.com. “It’s been hard getting used to the altitude, though I do feel settled there now.”
Having spent the best part of ten months in the country, during which time he has scored seven goals for his club, Tejada has acquired a very good understanding of the Mexican game, which he hopes to put to good use when Panama entertain El Tri on 7 June.
“It can be advantage because you get to see certain things, but that’s not always the case,” said the well-built, 6ft 1in player. “After all, World Cup qualifiers are totally different games because you’re coming up against players you don’t see in the national league, and it’s not a team that’s in the championship.”
With each game you can see that the gap between the teams in the CONCACAF Zone has shrunk. You need more than just big names to win matches now.
“Playing for the national team is always a big responsibility, not just for me but for everyone in general. If we do things right and play to our full potential, we can play a great game. I don’t know if Panama can beat Mexico. We’ll just have to wait and see and we can’t get ahead of ourselves. What I do know is that it’s going to be a tough game because we’re coming up against one of the best teams in the region, a country that’s been hard to beat.”
Tejada’s importance to Julio Cesar Dely Valdes’s side goes beyond his goalscoring. With his vast experience, he is a figure to look up to in a team in which a new generation of young players is beginning to break through.
Discussing his role as a mentor, Tejada said: “I always tell them to try and achieve their dreams, to prepare well. It’s not an easy career. They need to aim high and always do the best they can. More than anything, though, they need to have faith in their abilities and believe they can reach their goals.”
With only three points separating top from bottom in the group, every victory has to be earned, as Tejada acknowledged: “With each game that goes by you can see that the gap between the teams in the CONCACAF Zone has shrunk. You need more than just big names to win matches now. It’s all about what you do on the pitch.”
Though Panama’s future looks bright, their wily front man is taking absolutely nothing for granted.
“Work, work and more work,” he said, pointing out what Panama need to do to succeed. “We have to work as a team and stay grounded. Our self-belief has been crucial and though there’s still a long way to go, I feel we’re definitely on the right track.”