Panama find themselves on the verge of glory going into the decisive phase of CONCACAF Group C qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The Central American country sit top of the standings with nine points, two ahead of closest challengers Honduras and Canada, who still need to play each other in the final round of matches.
Indeed, Panama’s situation is extremely promising, with just three more points needed for coach Julio Cesar Dely Valdes’ first objective to be achieved. With two matches still to play - at home to Honduras at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez and against Cuba in Havana - it appears well within their reach. Nevertheless, the coach is keen to avoid complacency and will not be satisfied until his players have qualified for the final hexagonal round, as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
Keen to err on the side of caution, the tactician issued a warning both to his players and the fans. “We’ve come a long way, but I believe the hardest part is still to come. Things have gone well until now, but anything is possible,” said Dely Valdes. “We know that three points from a possible six are enough for us, but we need to try to get them as soon as we can. That means on 13 October against Honduras, and not waiting until the 16th. We know that even though Cuba are already out, they’re still a dangerous opponent. If we don’t beat Honduras we’ll have our backs to the wall.”
Accordingly, the former Malaga and Paris Saint-Germain forward is focusing solely on the encounter against Los Catrachos. “It’s a very complicated tie. Historically our meetings have been very even, especially in the last few years, when both sides have had victories. They’ve improved a lot and deserve a great deal of respect. The worst thing we could do would be to go into the match thinking it’s going to be easy.”
Panama would do well to look back on their historic 2-0 win in San Pedro Sula in their first Group C fixture. “Before that game we really believed we could take all three points. Even though it was the first match of the qualifiers, I said I wouldn’t accept a draw,” Dely Valdes continued. “We will try to go into this match with the same mentality. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee anything, but we need to think positively, especially playing at home. We haven’t lost a single point on our own patch during these qualifiers and I hope that will continue.”
The passionate Panamanian supporters, who are eager for their side to make history, have played a significant role in creating such optimism. “There are many ways of motivating a player ahead of the Honduras match. Obviously there are no guarantees, but for the first time ever, tickets to watch the national side have been sold out three weeks in advance. It’s a wonderful time right now, the players have matured a lot and there are many reasons to believe that we’ll do well.”
Dreaming of Brazil
The region’s six-team final stage is only a prelude to the real objective: the 2014 world finals in Brazil. Far from being an impossible dream for Panama, it would come as little surprise were they to reach the showpiece given the huge strides they've made in recent years. “Ever since my brother [Jorge, assistant coach] and I started this process, we set ourselves the target of being among the best. According to the FIFA Ranking, we’re the third-best team in the region and we need to maintain that. It won’t be easy, but that’s what we’re working towards.”
Their efforts are already starting to bear fruit and their impressive results are giving rise to opportunities that would have been unthinkable just a short time ago, for example playing against the world’s top teams. “Without doubt. When I was a player, who’d have thought that we’d go up against Portugal in their stadium?” said the coach proudly. “And now we’re playing against Spain in November. It looked impossible before, but things are working out and that gives us great satisfaction, although it also implies a big responsibility.”
While Panama’s progress is certainly encouraging, it will all count for little if the team does not conclude the process it started six months ago. “If we achieve our aim of reaching the hexagonal, I believe Panama have a strong chance of getting to Brazil. There’s a lot of optimism, but we need to take things step by step. First we need to qualify and then I think we’re capable of making history.”