Rodriguez: We'll fight to return to the World Cup
His dream was to be a footballer and at 20 he played at Russia 2018
"Our first World Cup was a unique experience for the whole country"
His goals are to reach Qatar 2022 with Panama and excel in Spain
From a very young age, Jose Luis Rodriguez was clear about his ambition to become a professional footballer, refusing to let a difficult upbringing in a tough neighbourhood stand in his way. "Everyone there liked to play football," says the player, now a household name in his homeland.
At the age of 16, Rodriguez made his professional debut in Panama and soon found himself in the national U-17 team competing at a Concacaf championship. It was to be the start of big things for the winger, even if his mother was not entirely happy at the time: "She told me that I was neglecting my studies and that I had to make a decision," he said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
His decision was to move to Europe and from there represent Los Canaleros at the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, where he would earn a place in the hearts of the Panamanian public.
The moment came in their third and final match of the group stage against Tunisia. With the game scoreless, it was Rodriguez’ shot that defected off a defender’s leg for the opening goal. It was the first time Panama had taken the lead at the World Cup, and the player’s celebration encapsulated the joy felt by an entire country. "I'm not even sure what I was saying [in that moment]. When I saw that the ball cross the line, I was shouting all sorts of things. I was happy and screaming! I remember my team-mates saying to me, 'Come on, we can do this.'"
Although the score was given as an own-goal by Yassine Meriah, the 22-year-old left-winger has claimed it as his own: "I've always said it was my goal. If I hadn’t shot on target, then it wouldn’t have hit one of our opponents and gone in for a goal. All of Panama consider it my goal."
That strike and the World Cup was the launch pad for the player, who has continued to improve in the interim. He originally joined KAA Gent’s U-21 team in 2016, and by 2019 the doors to Spain had opened with Deportivo Alaves securing his services. “This is what I want and I'm going to fight to fulfil my goal of going far in Europe and elevating my country to the best possible position,” he said.
However, the journey has not been without its difficulties. As with any teenager, leaving their country, family and friends at 18 to cross the pond is never easy. "I found it very tough. I was used to living with my mother, who I’d never previously been away from. The first year was very complicated. Many times I thought of my friends and family. I also had a son and not being able to see him affected me."
In those difficult moments, he found motivation by focusing on his goal. "I was clear about what I wanted in life. Either I could go back to Panama and my old neighbourhood and follow the same path that some of my companions had taken, which was the wrong road, or I could fight to achieve my dream of being a professional footballer and going as far as possible."
His move to Spain was a very happy occasion for Rodriguez. "After the World Cup, the chance to sign for Alaves was a reward. I did very well with the club’s B Team. When I arrived, they were in the Tercera Division (fourth tier) and we went up to the Segunda B (third tier). A lot of people saw me play and spoke very well of me, so the club were very happy."
That paved the way for a loan move to CD Lugo this season: "So far it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. I'm happy because I've become an important player for the team," he told us.
His ambition remains undimmed however: "Next year I hope to establish myself in the top-flight, and hopefully it’ll be with Alaves," he said. Rodriguez got a taste of the big time last July, when he made his league debut for El Glorioso against none other than Real Madrid.
His European experience has been serving him well when it comes to the Panama national team, who he joins up with this week as they commence qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. "The first few games are going to be tough. We have to reach the second round and try then to progress to the final qualifying round. The team is fully focused and is going to give its all for our country."
Panama kicks off its campaign in Concacaf Group D with games against Barbados (on the 25th) and Dominica (on the 28th) in the Dominican Republic: "I’d have liked to play them in my country," he said, although well aware that it is the simplest solution given the situation with the pandemic.
Mindful that their group opponents will not be easy, Rodriguez was frank when asked what he knew about them: "I haven't been with the team so I’ve not had the chance to see anything. When we get there, the coach will show us videos and we'll start getting to know them better. Just like us, they’ll be going out to win."
The hard-won experience of recent years makes him an authoritative voice in the Canalero squad, something that becomes clear when he talks about the team’s objective. "We can no longer just go out to take part. We have to go with the mindset of believing in ourselves. If there’s a chance to go back to the World Cup, we’ll fight to make it happen. And if we return to the world stage, we want to at least win one game."
For Rodriguez and Panama, the memories of Russia are still vivid. "It was a very nice experience and a dream come true. It was a unique experience for the whole country and incredibly nice for me personally – to go to a World Cup and to be a starter. I remember entering the packed stadium and listening to our national anthem. A lot of things went through my head."
Now the next step is to make a good start in the current qualifiers with the aim of reprising that experience on the world stage and accruing even more memories.
Jose Luis Rodriguez in brief
His mother’s words before he left for Europe: "She wanted me to continue my studies, but I explained that I wanted to be a footballer and that I had the chance to go to Belgium. My dream was to play in Europe, and I asked her to support me in that – and she did."
An idol he looks up to: "Cristiano Ronaldo. I've been following him since I was a kid. I admire the way he works – he’s been my role model. I try to look at his life, his evolution and the efforts he’s had to make. I'm trying to go down the same path."
What he misses about Panama: "My mother's cooking."
Any dish in particular? "Rice with coconut lentils and grilled pork chops."
Something from Panama that he’d like to have in Spain: "Can I have anything? Then my mother. Having her here living with me."
About the prospect of emulating what Rommel Fernandez (the former striker who died in 1993 and gave his name to the stadium where Panama play their home games) did in Spain: For me, it’d be a source of pride, just as it would be for my family, friends, neighbourhood and country. Rommel Fernandez came from the same neighbourhood as me, and I hope one day to be able to match and surpass the stats he had in Spain. He was a very important player.