MIAMI, Florida – With Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for Qatar 2022 around the corner, countries from around the region will soon be preparing for the first round of qualifiers.
For Panama, qualifying for the biggest national team competition in the world will have a different feeling to it.
It was of course four years ago that the Canaleros began a journey that ended with their first ever qualification for a FIFA World Cup at the senior team level by punching their ticket to Russia 2018.
Now, Panama will look to repeat history and make a return trip to the World Cup in Qatar. Former Panama player and Head Coach Julio Dely Valdes, who led Panama during Concacaf World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014, believes that with their base intact, the Canaleros have the pieces in place to reach Qatar.
“There is a before and after with Panama now. Before Panama was going to have a long road to qualify, but now it is more attainable,” said Dely Valdes in an interview with Concacaf.com.
“I believe that Panama still has a national team that can compete. Panama still have 80 or 90 percent of the players who were in the last World Cup and I think Panama can arm a team that can compete and fight,” added Dely Valdes.
With the adoption of a changed format for Concacaf WCQ for Qatar 2022, Panama will be grouped into the early rounds of qualifying in hopes of securing one of three spots to round out the final round of qualifying which will involve eight teams.
Assuming they can navigate their way past some of their early opponents, Dely Valdes is optimistic that Panama can get the job done once in the final eight.
“The most difficult thing is to reach the final round. Once Panama is in the final round, I would consider them to be a candidate to reach another World Cup,” said Dely Valdes.
One player who formed part of the history-making Panama team that qualified for Russia 2018 was GK Jaime Penedo.
Now retired, the former shot-stopper feels like there are healthy expectations from the fan base that the national team returns to the World Cup.
“The fans have taken a new approach with the national team. Now they are more demanding and it is something for which to be thankful. Because those demands are transmitted to the players and it motivated you to give you more,” said Penedo in an exclusive interview with Concacaf.com.
While Panama’s stay at Russia 2018 concluded at the end of the group stage, it was a valuable lesson for all of the players involved and Penedo believes it will serve as a great asset in the cycles to come.
“The first World Cup was a great learning experience and very emotional for us, but now we have to work to try to reach Qatar 2022 and do an even better job there,” said Penedo.
Penedo is fully aware that it will be quite the challenge for Panama to reach Qatar 2022, thanks in largely part to Concacaf’s Nations League initiative that has provided increased competition across the region, in particular for Caribbean teams.
It is a healthy development for the entire region, which should raise the level of competition for all teams, including Penedo’s Panama.
“We know that our region is a region with a lot of federations and it is important that they all compete and have competition. This Nations League format is what they have been looking for, that there are many more game to play. It may seem like there are easy opponents, but you have to play the games. Look at how Bermuda beat us [at home], so I think it’s good that there is competition because all of the teams are involved and for a team to get to a new level, you have something to aspire to,” concluded Penedo.