Blackburn: We can’t give anything away

  • Panama sit two points behind leaders Mexico in qualifiers

  • Blackburn has scored twice

  • Christiansen’s influence paying dividends

If you were to ask Panama striker Rolando Blackburn about the footballers who have inspired him, there would be three names to roll off his tongue: the Brazilian Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Carlos Tevez. His admiration for O Fenomeno stems from his goalscoring exploits at a time when Blackburn was at an impressionable age and dreaming of making it as a footballer. He sees Cavani as a modern-day standard-bearer in the game, while his appreciation of Tevez goes beyond the Argentinian’s footballing exploits. “Both of us come from rough neighbourhoods. I was raised in San Joaquin, Panama, which, while brimming with footballing talent, also has a lot of death and violence,” the 31-year-old reveals in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. It was there he honed his skills, while avoiding the pitfalls of life in the neighbourhood. “I had to fight against the current. I went through a lot there, but I never let anything influence me negatively, which was crucial.” Local club Tauro FC soon came calling, giving Blackburn the opportunity to make it as a footballer. It was there he began to forge a mindset which today, despite being an established professional, still informs his guiding principles. “Initially I could afford the transport to go to training, as it was just a 50-cent bus ride. And though later this proved harder, I was still able to cobble together the fares with the help of acquaintances. Even as a youngster I was determined that I’d never miss a single training session. This has helped me a lot when it comes to succeeding in life.”

Reaping the rewards of hard work

What’s clear is that this approach is having a positive impact on his performances today. He’s already scored an impressive two goals in three games in the current Concacaf qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. “I’m on my best run of form with Panama. I’m very grateful to God for what I’m going through, but I’ll never forget the hard work my team-mates have been putting in to make this all happen.” This collective effort has seen Panama get off to a positive start in the eight-team final qualifying round, where they sit on five points, just two behind leaders Mexico. Coach Thomas Christiansen, who took charge of Panama in August 2020, is seeing his footballing ideas coming to fruition on the pitch.

“We’ve started well, and we’re performing to a standard not achieved for a long time. Things have changed a lot since Thomas came into the fold. He’s changed our mentality so that we don’t cower to any team, always playing the same dynamic and fast-paced game.”

CIUDAD DE PANAMA, PANAMA - SEPTEMBER 08: Rolando Blackburn #9 of Panama celebrates after scoring the first goal of his team with teammate Michael  Mulirro #23 during the match between Panama and Mexico as part of the Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier at Estadio Rommel Fernandez on September 08, 2021 in Ciudad de Panama, Panama. (Photo by Eliecer Aizprua Banfield/Getty Images)

The qualifiers in North, Central America and the Caribbean will resume in the coming days, with Panama taking on El Salvador, USA and Canada on October 7, 10 and 13 respectively. There are nine points at stake, enough to see them take top spot in the group. “Every game will be a challenge. Panama have never been world beaters, and it’s clear to us that we have to give our all in every match. If we want to aspire to reach our second World Cup, we have to treat each game as if it were a final. Our aim is clear: we can’t give anything away.”

Despite the fact that the final stretch of qualifiers is only just beginning, thoughts of the World Cup are inevitable. All the more so when it comes to Rolando Blackburn, who came very close to going to Russia 2018. Despite being called up to the provisional squad, he did not make the final cut. “I see obstacles as just another challenge to overcome. This approach has helped me a lot in doing well at my club. I was aware that if I kept finding the net in the league I could be back in contention for the national team. We’re working hard to make ourselves heard, firstly in trying to qualify and then at the tournament if we get there. The idea of playing in a World Cup thrills me.” The team’s group rivals cannot say they have not been warned. "While we’re taking things step by step, these last three matches have set out the path which this Panamanian team wants to go down. If we continue to play as we are and maintain this approach, then with some improvements and minor adjustments I’m convinced that we’ll put up one hell of a fight,” he concludes.