Panama are one of CONCACAF’s true success stories of the last two decades. Traditionally a country obsessed with baseball and boxing, Los Canaleros - as their national team is affectionately known -have managed to shake up the established order on Central America’s football pitches and develop from an emerging power into dark horses in the race to reach the next FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.
This red-clad side first made waves in 2005 when, seemingly out of nowhere, they reached the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States. Eventually beaten on penalties by the hosts in New York, the outstanding play and physical robustness of the likes of the Dely Valdes brothers (Jorge and Julio) and emerging stars like Blas Perez, Felipe Baloy and Luis Tejada, were a pleasant surprise. It was the result of hard work and dedication by the Panamanian FA in the preceding years and represented a break with a past where Los Canaleros were also-rans.
Julio Dely Valdes, the most famous player the country has ever produced, now sits in the technical area as coach of the national team, and his brother Jorge runs the youth sides. Former Paris Saint-Germain and Malaga darling Julio’s first order of business after taking over the reins in 2010 was a semi-final run in last summer’s Gold Cup, where he even managed a shock win over USA in the first round. He followed it up with a first-place finish in Round Two of CONCACAF qualifying for Brazil 2014. Their recent successes have seen Panama shoot up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, climbing two places in the CONCACAF zone where they are currently seated just behind major powers Mexico and USA in third place. Their global positioning of 49th has them ahead of traditionally illustrious football nations such as Cameroon and Poland. Not bad for a country considered a footballing backwater just 20 years ago.
Such is the improvement in Dely Valdes’ side that the players have begun to turn their attentions toward reaching the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil in what would be a glorious first for the nation. If their performances in qualifying Group C of Round Two are anything to go on, they will not be a side to take lightly. They scored 15 goals in four games against Nicaragua and Dominica to become the first of the non-seeded teams to reach the next round.
The current squad is led by veterans Tejada and Perez, who, now 30 and playing in Mexico with Indios de Ciudad Juarez, is eager to leave the international arena on an even higher note than the 2005 Gold Cup runners-up finish.
“It’s difficult to imagine ever having another opportunity to reach a World Cup after this, so I’m focused like never before,” said Perez, before laying down exactly how confident he and his team-mates are heading into their next group, where they will take on Canada, Honduras and Cuba. “Missing out on Brazil 2014 would be a failure, no question. But we shouldn’t even be thinking along those lines.”
The first step on the road to Brazil is out of the way for the lively and improving Canaleros, but their performances last time out should stand as a cautionary tale. Expected to reach far into the preliminaries for South Africa 2010, Panama stuttered early on in the competition and were out even before things got underway. It is a fate Perez is desperate to avoid this time around.
“We’re more humble now, more united. It’s a very nice group. You could describe us as a brotherhood, with (coach) Julio like a father and a friend to us. We are all pushing in the same direction. We’ll continue to move forward with the World Cup as our goal.”