Working a little room for himself within Guatemala's defensive ranks, Panama striker Ismael Diaz looked up to see his team-mate Julian Velarde plough down the right and play a teasing cross into the six-yard box.
Reading his colleague’s intentions to perfection, Diaz stole in to nod the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs, a goal that said everything about the teenage front man’s predatory skills and which also secured Panama’s place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015.
Despite giving two years away to many of the defenders he came up against in the qualifiers, Diaz proved time and again with his vital goals that he belongs at this level. “I played against people who were bigger than me when I was in the U-17s,” said the Panama forward in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
“It shouldn’t be a disadvantage. It’s up to you to do the work and make sure that the age difference doesn’t matter. To be honest, I actually see it as an advantage. It gives me the chance to show that I can keep giving more and more, that I can be relied upon when the pressure is on.”
Striving for more
Standing 5’11 tall, Diaz is strong, alert and a skilled operator inside and outside the box. He is also totally dedicated to his art: “Even when I’m not playing, my life still revolves around football. When I’m not with the team, I train on my own. I just want to keep on improving.”
His many qualities have allowed him to repay the faith shown in him by national team coach Leonardo Pipino, starting with the brace he scored in the 4-0 defeat of Aruba in Panama’s opening match of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, held in Jamaica. Following narrow defeats of USA and Trinidad and Tobago, the Panamanians saw off the tournament hosts, with Diaz once again getting on the scoresheet. Then came the decisive match against the Guatemalans, a match settled by his close-range header.
We can make history, get through the group and, God willing, go even further.
We were up against some strong teams and I was delighted to end up with four goals,” said Diaz who plays his club football for Tauro FC and turned 18 on 12 May. “I know that I didn’t do it all on my own. It’s down to God and to the work of the team. That’s what helps me keep my feet on the ground, knowing that they’ve helped me achieve it.”
The experience he acquired at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 and latterly in Panama’s first division means he is well qualified to assess the attributes of the Canalero team that will travel to New Zealand. “I’m the goalscorer in a side that likes to have possession,” he explained. “We like to have the ball, get forward and score goals. We believe in ourselves and we believe we can achieve big things. That’s what’s made us successful so far.”
*The perfect balance *Judging by those words, Panama might seem like a side who are happy to take risks and prone to leaving themselves exposed at the back. Yet to everyone’s surprise, *La Marea Roja *booked their place at the U-20 world finals without conceding a single goal.
“We put in a lot of effort,” said Diaz, looking back to the qualifiers. “We all did our bit. We attacked as one and we defended as one. This is a team that knows how to give its all, and I know that we’ll be just as solid in defence in New Zealand. I’ve got faith in my team-mates. I know they’ll give it everything.”
Panama face a daunting opening match in Group A, with Argentina providing the opposition. Pondering the task ahead of them, their attacking spearhead said: “We know we’re in a very tough group. The teams we’re up against have real stature and they’ve got a lot of experience and World Cups behind them. We’re full of hope, though. We can make history, get through the group and, God willing, go even further.”
Diaz is not the kind of player to shirk a challenge. He proved that much in helping his country reach UAE 2013 as a mere 15-year-old, in making a goalscoring debut for Tauro and in making his full international debut in an August 2014 friendly against Cuba.
“We want to give Panama something to cheer about, which we haven’t managed with the U-20s before. This time we’re going to do it though,” said the defiant Diaz, his sights set on New Zealand and his next big challenge.