• Panama will be making their FIFA World Cup™ debut at Russia 2018
  • Julio Cesar Dely Valdes was coach when side just missed out on Brazil 2014
  • "There’s a lot to do but right now we need to enjoy this," he said 

When the final whistle sounded at the end of Panama’s 2-1 defeat of Costa Rica at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City last month, the jubilant home players were joined on the pitch by the equally ecstatic coaching staff and the fans, who were barely able to contain themselves now that their long wait was finally over.

After so many failed attempts, the people of Panama came together as one to celebrate the national team’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time in their history. And they marked the occasion with a chant, sung at the top of their voices: “We’re going to the World Cup”.

One proud Panamanian looking on from a distance was Julio Cesar Dely Valdes. The best player the country has ever produced, he was in the dugout when Panama agonisingly missed out on qualification for Brazil 2014.

A few weeks on from that long-awaited night of joy, Dely Valdes sat down with FIFA.com to talk about Panama’s long journey from misery to happiness. In doing so, the former national team coach picked out six key phases.

The early days
“Panamanian football was still amateur when I began playing. It was the country’s third or fourth sport. Baseball, basketball and boxing were always ahead of it. I didn’t even begin my professional career in the country. I started out in Uruguay. My brother had won a scholarship to go and play in Argentina and he had his career there, at Argentinos Juniors. He told me to come and have a look and after a spell in the Argentinian fourth division, I moved to Nacional of Montevideo in 1989. I was 22.”

Flying the flag for Panama in Europe
“After four and a half years in Uruguay, I went to Italy, to Genoa and Cagliari. That’s when they started to follow me back home. After that I played in France (Paris Saint-Germain) and Spain (Oviedo and Malaga). There were a few more of us abroad and we were the representatives of Panama in Europe. I think we helped the future of football in our country with the way that we played.”

The World Cup, a distant dream
“Back in those days the World Cup was a lot further away than it is today. We were still excited about it though. There were three or four of us who played outside Panama: my brother Jorge, two or three in El Salvador and another one in Mexico. We’d only just started to make ourselves known outside the country. Then, when we managed to reach the Hexagonal (the final six-team round of qualifying in the CONCACAF Zone) in 2006, Jorge and I decided to retire from international football. We felt it was the right time, and though things didn’t go that well for the team, that was when the seeds were sown.”

Heartbreak on the road to Brazil 2014
“We’d never been so close to qualification. We had to beat USA at home to go into the play-off and we let the game slip in the closing minutes. I was the head coach and my brother was the assistant. It was really tough. We were so near and yet so far from achieving something unique. At the end of the qualifiers we decided to step aside because we wanted to look for something different. The appointment of Hernan Dario Gomez ensured there was continuity though, as did the fact that the core of the team stayed the same.”

Delirium at last
“I was really nervous before the Costa Rica game in October. When Roman Torres scored the goal I realised that the time had come, that we weren’t going to let it slip this time. It was a shame I couldn’t shout and scream because it was early in the morning where I was and the neighbours wouldn’t have been very happy with me (laughs). We finally achieved what we’d always dreamed of! And that’s when you start looking back and you realise all the things that you’ve been through and have experienced, that it was worth it.”

Russia and a promising future
“We need to prepare well. That’s the key in a major tournament. The players need to arrive in the best possible physical and mental shape, though the most important thing is that the people of Panama all need to enjoy it because it’s the first time. It’s going to make us so happy to hear our national anthem at the World Cup. Football is now the biggest sport in the country, no question. People have become very passionate about it. When Barça and Madrid play you see the shirts everywhere. At a local level, though, there’s still a lot that needs to be done to make the game professional. There’s still a lot to do. But what we have to do right now is enjoy it.”