Few people in the CONCACAF Zone doubt the potential of Panama. The talent possessed by Los Canaleros has been recognised across the region for many years now, with many of the view that it is only a question of time before they become a local powerhouse. That said, La Roja have stumbled time and again in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying competitions, experiencing a series of unexpected setbacks that have delayed their long-awaited breakthrough.
The Panamanians have another opportunity to set the record straight when the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014 resumes. They will once again be strongly fancied to go all the way.
Discussing that assignment exclusively with FIFA.com, Canalero striker Luis Tejada gave his views ahead of the start of the next phase in the qualifiers and assessed Panama’s hopes of finally achieving a long-cherished dream.
No shortage of optimism
Panama’s last world finals bid four years ago was cut short after only two games by El Salvador. Having formed part of that side, Tejada has no intention of repeating the experience: “It was the kind of thing we need to learn from so that we don’t make those mistakes again. We were very immature, but everything’s different now and there are some very professional people in this group. This is the last qualifying competition for a lot of us and we don’t want to let the opportunity go by.”
Dubbed El Matador, the 30-year-old goal-getter has seen first-hand how football in Panama has evolved from being a semi-professional sport to the most popular in the country in the space of a decade, a development that Tejada puts down to a change in focus. “Things are much more professional now," he said. "We made do with less before and that’s changed over the years.”
Currently plying his trade with Juan Aurich in Peru, Tejada also puts the national team’s progress down to the fact several of Panama’s leading players are now based abroad.
“We’re playing in the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana and we’ve got players competing in some strong leagues,” he explained. “That means we’re getting experience against other internationals and it helps us compete at the same level. I think that’s what we were lacking because we didn’t have enough experience.
“We have a lot to be thankful to Colombian football for,” he continued. “A lot of Panamanians have gone there and that’s helped us to learn.”
Panama’s next step on the road to Brazil 2014 comes in June with the start of the second group phase in the CONCACAF qualifiers. Facing them in Group C will be some stiff opposition in the shape of Canada, Cuba and Honduras, although Tejada has no doubts as to who will pose the biggest threat.
“Our first game is against Honduras and I think they’re the rivals to beat. If we can win that match, we’ll have every chance of reaching the final six-team group. As for Canada and Cuba, we know that if they’ve got this far then it’s for a reason, though Honduras are up first. We’ll have time to think about the rest after that.”
Now that they know what they have to do, Tejada and his team-mates are already dreaming in Portuguese, though they are not alone. Urging them on are Panama’s army of fans, who are expecting their heroes to give them something to cheer about at long last.
“People didn’t care that much about football before, but that’s all changed,” said El Matador. “Now you win a game and they’re asking you to go and win the World Cup, even though we’ve never even qualified for it. In some way that’s a good thing because we’ve been spoiling them with the results we’ve been getting, but we also have to be a bit more realistic.”
Before he signed off, Tejada set out just what the challenge ahead means to him and the country as a whole: “The important thing is for the Panama team to keep on progressing, to keep on getting it right. We’ve got a wonderful opportunity and I hope this is our turn. It’s always been my dream to play in a World Cup and if we get knocked out this time, I can’t really see it happening.”