Blas Perez isn’t shy about dirtying a shirt for the cause, battling, putting himself in among the flying elbows and flashing studs. The veteran striker personifies Panama’s football. And even though his goals aren’t always masterworks of high artistry, he always seems to score them, by hook or by crook.
“We work hard, very hard,” the journeyman poacher, playing in his third FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign, told FIFA.com. “There’s a union, a harmony in this Panama team,” added the 31-year-old, currently with Major League Soccer outfit FC Dallas in the autumn of a much-travelled career. “We don’t fight with each other, we’re not greedy, and when we enter the pitch, we do it as one. Our solidarity is our strength.”
This fundamental togetherness that Perez describes has seen the Canaleros power their way into the final ‘Hexagonal’ round of Brazil 2014 qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean. It’s a long way from the South Africa 2010 preliminaries, when they flopped ignominiously at the first hurdle, losing what Perez called a “total disaster” to El Salvador. “We have a different mentality now,” added the forward, who currently leads the team in scoring, partnering all-time top marksman Luis Tejada to great effect. “We believe in ourselves and we have a lot of veterans, like myself, who can help show the way to the younger ones.”
Panama’s ascent to the upper reaches of the region’s football is a relatively recent phenomenon. They burst onto the scene, almost from nowhere, in 2005 by reaching the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, eventually losing a penalty shoot-out to hosts and regional powers USA.
They were a gritty side of overachievers then, and they remain so today. Current national team coach Julio Dely Valdes, who captained the famous ‘05 team, has built on that early taste of the big stage. “Now [Brazil 2014] is our best chance of qualifying for a World Cup,” the former PSG and Malaga man remarked.
“I think he’s right,” agreed Perez, who took part in the 2007 and 2009 Gold Cups, team top scorer in the former and selected for a ‘Best XI’ in the latter. “We have every reason to believe that this is our year,” he said, a hopeful note chiming in his voice as he contemplated a first-ever trip to world football’s biggest stage. “We’re trying to put it all together to achieve our dream, to put Panama into the World Cup.”
Perez, originally nicknamed Raton (mouse), has since become Super Raton (Mighty Mouse) as most permutations of Raton were taken when he opened his Twitter account. He came through the ranks at local club Panama Viejo, showing a predatory instinct in the penalty area. Next came a short stint with Uruguayan giants Nacional and, at 22, he moved to Colombia and unfashionable Envigado and Centauros, before moving on to Deportivo Cali and a successful period with Cucuta. There he scored eight goals – two against Argentine giants Boca Juniors – in the Copa Libertadores.
No place like home
His has been a football life always on the move. Never quite finding a home for long, he has turned up in several levels of Mexico’s divisions, including a strong loan season for Pachuca in 2009. He went to Spain, with Hercules, and even the middle east and UAE, before settling in Texas last year.
Having travelled so much and so often, Perez knows the value of home. When he pulls on the red national team jersey, he is at that home. “You think about your family and your neighbours, all of the people in the country who are counting on you,” said Perez, thoughts turning to the possibility of leading the side to the Promised Land, what he calls “the ultimate dream” of a FIFA World Cup. “We’ll keep fighting for them; it’s our duty and we’ll give it all we’ve got. We have a real chance.”
The fight resumes on 6 February with a visit from recently crowned Central American champions Costa Rica. Playing at their fortress-like Estadio Rommel Fernandez, where the Panamanians conceded zero goals in the previous round of qualifying, Perez sees good reason to hope. “We’ll have a little advantage,” he said, cautiously, not keen to underestimate Los Ticos, who’ve reached the FIFA World Cup on three occasions. “The people will be with us; the crowd will be on our side and here in CONCACAF you have to take your points at home. This is our mentality: win at home and steal some points on the road.”
For Perez and many other veterans in an aging Panama team, like captain Felipe Baloy and Tejada, Brazil 2014 represents the last chance to reach the mountain top, and it’s a fact not lost on Super Raton. “The moment is now, the time is now,” he concluded, an air of intensity, an edge of desperation, creeping into his voice, “and we have to take advantage.”