Though for so long a secondary sport in Panama, lagging way behind the country’s most popular pastimes of baseball and boxing, football has enjoyed a remarkable surge in recent years. This progress has come largely thanks to the feats of the gifted Dely Valdes twins and a national team that has rapidly become a force on the Central American scene.
Their early exit from the qualifying stage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ was therefore a bitter pill to swallow for Panamanian football fans, with high hopes of progress cruelly dashed by El Salvador in only the second stage of North, Central American and Caribbean Zone qualifiers. However, two years on from that disappointment, Los Canaleros are daring to dream again.
Having had to watch South Africa 2010 from afar, Panama quickly set about making a statement of intent in the weeks after the showpiece event. Indeed, under interim coach Jorge Dely Valdes, Panama won two and drew one of their three friendly encounters in August, scoring eight times and conceding just three - results which moved them up no fewer than 27 spots to 70th place in September’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
The first of these matches was an impressive 3-1 win over Venezuela in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, with Dely Valdes’ charges going a goal down only to notch three times in the last 13 minutes via Luis Tejada, Blas Perez and Edwin Aguilar. Next came a worthy 2-2 drew against regional heavyweights Costa Rica, which featured a brace from Tejada, a result Los Canaleros followed up by dispatching Trinidad and Tobago 3-0 despite blooding a number of youth players.
The win over the Soca Warriors was Jorge Dely Valdes’ last game in charge, with twin brother Julio Cesar taking his place. The latter, arguably the biggest icon in the history of Panamanian football , was the overwhelming favourite to take the national team helm in the eyes of both the fans and the media, and has been charged with guiding Panama to a FIFA World Cup final tournament for the very first time.
“I think we’ve got a good enough team to qualify for a World Cup,” said the new boss, who will keep Jorge on as his assistant, in one of his first interviews after taking the role. “That said, we’ll have to work hard, so we’ll need to give every ounce of effort we have to achieve it.
“Hard work, that’s my promise. I can’t guarantee titles or victories but I can promise that, along with my coaching staff, we’re going to work hard,” continued Julio Cesar, before outlining his aims for his time in charge. “I’m going to start working with a view to the 2014 World Cup, but the main thing now is to strengthen the national squad to make sure the team’s competitive when the World Cup qualifiers come around – whether I’m still coach or not.”
And the former Cagliari, Paris Saint-Germain, Oviedo and Malaga striker should have an even better idea of his squad’s capabilities on the back of three further friendlies in October against Peru, El Salvador and Cuba. In flying form, with morale buoyant and a place in the world’s top 70 sides now theirs, can Panama continue their recent run of results all the way to Brazil 2014?