PANAMA CITY, Panama -- If the Panamanian national team is knocking on the door of the hexagonal once again, the feat can undoubtedly be chalked up to hard work and constant improvement in the ranks of its players.
Indicative of the country's ascending regional status, Panama heads Group C in the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014, leading traditional regional heavyweights Canada and Honduras with two matches left to play.
As soccer becomes ever more prominent in the sporting landscape of this Central American country of approximately two million people, much of the newfound success can also be traced back to the contributions of one of the country's most decorated players, a man who now finds himself at the reigns of the national team.
Julio Dely Valdes has always served as a role model for Panama's soccer playing youth.Today, Dely Valdes, along with younger brother and assistant coach Jorge, continues his transcendental work in Panamanian soccer as national team skipper. In that post, Dely Valdes now heads up the very group with which, as a player, he helped bring Panama to new heights on the international stage over the last decade.
"First," says long-time Panamanian goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, "I'd say that there's a group of players, like Blas Perez, Luis Tejada, Gabriel Gomez, myself, Felipe Baloy, from the '81 age group. We're getting to be 30 or 31, more or less, and we had the pleasure to be in the team when the Dely Valdes brothers retired.
"You always have respect for the coach.He's the captain of the ship, the guide. But with the Dely Valdes brothers, there's something more than the normal respect for the coach. We grew up -- at least the group of players I mentioned -- we grew up watching what the Dely Valdes brothers did, and what they didn't do. I'll tell you a little story, when I first went to the national team, I watched even what they'd drink after the games. Whatever they did, I tried to copy it."
As far as international success, this year's team is out to do even more than copy the triumphs of the Dely Valdes on-the-field era. The Dely Valdes brothers led a new era of Panamanian football to its status among the region's powers, including nearly capturing the CONCACAF Gold Cup title in 2005. The current tight-knit group, though, has even bigger accomplishments in mind.
The core of the current team is made up of veterans from that 2005 CONCACAF runner-up, old hands lending their own experience to the current squad. After advancing to the final six in regional qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, the likes of Penedo, Tejada, Baloy and Gomez are looking to not only make the hexagonal for the second time in three tries, but to take a step further and qualify for Brazil 2014, and a long-awaited debut for Panama at the World Cup.
"It's a very nice experience we've all had together," said forward Blas Perez. "You can learn a lot from Julio, and Jorge, and I think you take that knowledge and try to apply it as best you can.
"He also knows us perfectly, what we like, what we don't like, and those are the bases of where this great work comes from at the national team level, and that's why we've been successful."
If those young Panamanian stars from almost a decade ago -- the generation of Perez and Penedo -- have brought the Red Tide to the verge of new accomplishments, it's not just through emulating the triumphs of the Dely Valdes brothers, but by taking the brothers' experiences and putting them to work on the field of play.
"The coach that we had back in those days, Jose Hernandez, helped Panamanian football a lot," says Penedo."He used to say, 'watch what the Dely Valdes brothers do,' and that's what we did. We respect them, and we responded to that."
Now, the experiences of the Dely Valdes brothers are bearing fruit for the national team players, as the Red Tide looks to have its most realistic chance ever of advancing through World Cup qualifying.
While the Panamanian program has benefited from the professionalism and work ethic demonstrated by Dely Valdes, it's the coach's profound tactical knowledge that the players say has marked the difference in making Panama a top-notch competitor in the region.
"I've been with a lot of coaches, and Jorge and Julio are football addicts," says Penedo. "They do their studies and give some talks that you end up just saying 'wow.' They tell you what's going to happen and what's not going to happen before the game starts. I think that's one of their greatest merits.They're infusing us with the can-do attitude."
Perez adds: "It helps a lot that Jorge was a player -- everything he's learned, the practices he's been through outside the country, he had some glorious experiences. He studies the opponent a lot, and I think that's why things go well for us. He knows what each player needs to do, and not do."
It's clear that in 2012, Julio and Jorge Dely Valdes are still setting the course for all of Panamanian football, both on and off the field. But these days, it's an even younger generation of Panamanian footballers watching the Dely Valdes brothers, a group that knows them not as players, but as successful coaches.
Still hoping for that first World Cup at the senior level, Panama in recent years has been racking up the laurels at the youth level, including a trip to last year's U-20 World Cup, as well as the U-17 version, where the team was led by none other than the younger Dely Valdes sibling.
"It's motivation to triumph," says Perez. "Because they've done so many things outside the country, and they always try to help the younger players. They're always bringing in younger players so they can shine at the national team level, contributing to the national team and the country. I think that the national team is headed down a good path in their hands."
Under the watchful gaze of the Dely Valdes brothers, the Canaleros could clinch their trip to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with just one win from their two upcoming matches, October 12 in Panama against Honduras, then on the road four days later at already-eliminated Cuba.