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Panama Hails Home-Grown Hero Valdes

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Panama hails home-grown hero Valdés

28.5.04 - Globetrotting striker Julio César Dely Valdés is set to receive a well-earned tribute from home fans this Sunday after a career spanning more than 17 years, most of it spent outside his native Panama.

The testimonial match, organised by the Panamanian Football Federation (Fepafut) and the player himself, will see the national side turn out against an invitation eleven picked from among Dely's former team-mates at the many clubs he has served over the years. Uruguayan coach Óscar Washington Tabárez will be directing the guests from the touchline: "Julio is one of the nicest people I have ever had the good fortune to work with. It will be a pleasure to be there." It is a well-deserved tribute for a footballer voted best Panamanian sportsman of the 20th century. "He has achieved a lot and is worthy of the honour," says Fepafut secretary, Ramón Cardoze.

Valdés is adamant that the game is no curtain call. "I want this to be an unforgettable day for Panamanians, I'm hoping it will be a footballing feast, but not a farewell performance. I've never said no to the national side," says the striker, hinting at a possible return to pulling on the country's colours in the forthcoming 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ qualifiers. Nor has he yet ruled out staying on at his current team, Árabe Unido, with whom he won Panama's Apertura championship this year.

Tough start

While the other kids in the neighbourhood hung about the streets playing baseball - Panama's most popular sport - the Valdés brothers were busy driving their parents wild ruining pair after pair of shoes thanks to their football antics. This was no teenage rebellion, but rather a real passion which was to end up being how the three boys earned their living.

Julio made his Panamanian first-division debut at the tender age of 15, turning out for Atlético Colón, but it soon became clear that the domestic competition was simply too small a stage for his talents. After four seasons, he decided to pack his bags and emigrate to lands with more tradition in the game. His subsequent destinations were Argentina Juniors and Deportivo Paraguayo, an Argentinian fourth-division outfit formed by immigrants. It was from there that he made the leap to the big time.

The young Panamanian signed for Nacional de Montevideo in 1989 in one of the strangest manners that can be remembered at the Uruguayan club. The then chairman, Sr Recalt, snapped him up without ever having seen him play a single minute, on the strength of spotting his name on the list of leading goalscorers in Argentina published in a famous magazine of the time.

With 110 strikes in four years, he was to join the ranks of the club's all-time top 10 marksmen. His most prolific year came in 1992, when he won a championship winner's medal as well as the title of top goalscorer. His crowning glory with the side came in the final against arch-rivals Peñarol. He bagged the winner in that memorable 15 December clash and thus earned the right to a place in the Uruguayan giants' hall of fame.

European adventure

In 1993, Panagol, as the Nacional fans had come to call him, took the decision to cross the Atlantic and touched down at Italy's Cagliari, who at the time were being coached by Óscar Washington Tabárez. After two seasons with the Sardinian side, he switched scene again to play for Paris Saint-Germain. His 21 goals in the Calcio were endorsement enough for the French club's chairman, Michel Denisot, to rave about the centre forward's potential: "I think he has the class required to replace George Weah." Quite a challenge. He played 84 competitive matches and netted 29 goals in the two seasons he wore the Parisian club's colours, earning a league title and a European Cup Winners Cup medal.

At 30, he was offered the chance to try his luck in the Spanish Liga, with Real Oviedo, then a first-division side languishing dangerously in the lower reaches of the table. The experienced Panamanian's goals would help right the keeling ship.

Three years, 103 games and 39 goals down the line, Dely swapped the rainy north of Spain for sunny Andalucia. Málaga had just sold their star striker, Catanha, and were in urgent need of replacement to calm the nerves of a brooding public. "A player who's almost 34 years old?". Club chairman Fernando Puche was the butt of criticism, but had faith in his hunch: "Don't look at his birth certificate, he's going to score bags of goals and nobody will remember the one who he replaced." It turned out to be quite a prophesy.

Dely's shirt quickly became a best-seller at the club supporters' shop. He enjoyed the full backing of his coach, Joaquín Peiró, who has nothing but praise for the player: "He is a consummate professional but above all he is a wonderful person." He also had the good luck to get on like a house on fire with fellow forward Darío Silva. They formed Málaga's "Double D", one of the most effective striking partnerships in the Liga, and together spearheaded the club's historic UEFA Cup campaign.

Málaga's all-time top goal scorer, with 38 strikes, chose not to renew his contract at the end of the 2002/2003 season and returned to Nacional de Montevideo to fulfil a personal dream: that of playing alongside his twin brother at the club where he first shot to fame. This second stage with the Uruguayan side lasted just six months and proved to be a disappointment for fans who had expected more from their idol. Dely could only manage a tally of eight goals.

The future

When a thoroughbred footballer hangs up his boots, his instinct stops him from straying too far from the field of play. And Julio knows that he can never completely bow out of the game: "When I retire, I'd like to help to promote Panamanian football and export players from here. I'd like to be able to do something for our footballers because it's difficult for them to get out of the country and we don't have agents who can put the word about. With my contacts, I can hopefully lend them a hand," he has been reported as saying.

He is pleased at football's development in his country and is even thinking of opening a school for youngsters there, but he is much more ambitious than that and does not relinquish his dream: to see Panama competing at a FIFA World Cup™. Even if it is from the sidelines as a coach.

Julio César Dely Valdés' Testimonial Match

Sunday, 30 May 2004

Estadio Rommel Fernández - Ciudad de Panamá

Kick-off: 16:00 (local time)

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