Though it has taken four long years, Panama are finally on the road to redemption. Back in 2007 they headed into the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ as one of the favourites to emerge from the region, but in what turned out to be one of the biggest upsets of the qualifiers, a less-fancied El Salvador side sent Los Canaleros crashing out of the competition almost before it had begun.
After such a heavy blow, Julio Dely Valdes’ side were anxious to make amends this time around, and this they duly did. After dominating their second-round group, Panama became the first team to qualify for the penultimate group phase last week.
With a stellar frontline that includes Luis Tejada and Blas Perez leading the way, the Central Americans racked up 12 goals in three games to ensure top spot in their section. Now in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Perez talks about the turnaround in his side’s fortunes and his determination to crown his international career with qualification for Brazil 2014.
While Perez expressed relief in making amends for the disappointment Panama experienced four years ago, he also warned the toughest stage of qualifying has yet to come. “What happened to us in the last qualifying competition was a total disaster, but we’ve now managed to put that behind us.
"We’ve matured a lot since then and have had some very good results. I think we’re earning the respect of others in the region and are on the right path. That’s evidenced by what we did during the first phase, although the hardest part is still to come, so we’re preparing for that.”
At 30, Perez is one of the most experienced players in the squad and well equipped to compare the current group with that of previous editions. “We have several youngsters who have come through, lads that are performing really well outside Panama, and so thanks to them we have a blend of youth and experience,” Perez explained, before adding that “the change of coach has helped as well. Julio has been working with us for a couple of years now and he knows how to handle the squad. What’s more, he’s an idol. For us he’s like a father and a friend. That relationship gives you a lot of confidence.”
The coach aside, the Indios de Ciudad Juarez frontman has noticed other differences from the previous campaign. “Going into the last qualifiers we had some great individual talents, players who perhaps were better known and more experienced that we have now.
"But there were certain things that weren’t managed the way they are now. We’re more humble now, more united – it’s a very nice group. You could describe us a brotherhood, with all of us pulling in the same direction. So far things have gone well for us, and we’ll continue forward with the World Cup as our goal.”
And things have gone well for Panama so far this qualifying campaign as they focus on what would be their first appearance at a FIFA World Cup. Perez feels the conditions are in place to achieve this. “I think the players are good enough, and the management side of things has also improved a lot.
"We’re working together with our Federation and the private sector, and we know what needs to be done. A few of us are around the 30-mark and our time has come. It’s difficult to imagine my having another opportunity to reach a World Cup, so I’m focused like never before.”
Such is the player’s determination that he is reluctant to even contemplate not being there. “Missing out on Brazil 2014 would be a failure, no question. But we shouldn’t even be thinking along those lines. Next is the second group stage and after that the hexagonal final phase. We went through some very bad times, which we haven’t forgotten. We owe it to our fans to qualify for the World Cup. Bit by bit we’re moving in that direction.”
Achieving that goal would not only bring joy to the Panamanian public, but also help cement the rising popularity of football in his homeland. “Football is still vying with boxing and baseball to be our most popular sport. As a people we like all three of them, but football is booming because we’ve been doing well recently. The public know what great potential we have and place a lot of store in us. We’re growing bit by bit and our people follow how we’re doing very closely.”
Perez specifically relates his own sporting development as an experience that perfectly encapsulates the diversity of Panamanian culture. “My father always wanted me to become a baseball player, but that didn’t really appeal. I was one of those lads who played every sport – whatever was in vogue I tried it.
"I veered towards football when I was about 14 or 15 once I realised that I had a good future in the game. Since then I’ve never stopped working, and the results are there to see. Now my dream is to reach a World Cup finals and I’m sure that, with the help of my team-mates, I’ll get there.”