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striker hoping to fulfil a message
After Panama qualified for the World Cup, Luis Tejada’s aunt received a message from God. It apparently brought good news for the national team and particularly for her nephew, who would score a stunning overhead kick in Russia and then bow out from national team duty in a blaze of glory.
At least part of that vision will come true, regardless of how things pan out on the pitch. Tejada will retire from international football after the tournament and, at the age of 36, will be able to reflect on the most unexpected of Indian summers. He is the highest scorer in Panama’s history, with 43 goals, but any chance of troubling the very best defences seemed to have passed him by until their dramatic qualification in October.
It has been a long road for Tejada, whose current club – Callao Sport Boys in Peru – is the 19th stop in a career spanning almost two decades. From the outset, so much was stacked against him. He grew up in the tough San Joaquin and Carrasquilla neighbourhoods of Panama City, learning to fight for his dreams in an environment in which kicking a ball well enough to become a professional
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was one of the few ways out.
“I have lots of friends who are now in prison, others who have died,” he recalled of his childhood. “Others are still around and changed their lives. The truth is, I don’t know what would have become of me if I hadn’t become a footballer.
“Sometimes I stop to think: the only things that never stop are time and the wind. I don’t know if I would be dead, [without football], if I would have been in a gang, or if I would have ended up doing some good. For this reason, I thank God that he grabbed me in time and took control of me.”
As a child, Tejada earned money looking after cars parked outside churches and selling items at traffic lights. It was a hand-to-mouth existence and his first football boots were given to him by a neighbour. Playing football at all had risks of its own back then, though, in an area where crime – and the terror of gunfire – were rarely far away.
“Sometimes with friends, in my neighbourhood, we wanted to play football but we had to wait for things to be quiet – to check no guns were being fired, that the police weren’t around,” he remembers.
His talent was noticed soon enough, and he initially made his name at major local club Tauro. Not everybody from his past was entirely complimentary as he moved on to ply his trade in – among other places – Colombia, UAE, Mexico, Peru
and, briefly, the US, but he is conscious of the fortune that has marked his path.
“Everything in my country stems from your surroundings,” he said. “When you leave a neighbourhood, there are people for and against it. There is a lot of envy, people who are not happy when you are doing well. There are problems. I thank God for everything, even if my childhood was not easy.”
Now he is one of the country’s biggest sporting stars. He is a man of many nicknames – The Matador, The Panamanian, Golden Tooth – and one who has given everything for the national team since winning his first cap in 2001. He is close to other major figures in Panama such as the singer Ruben Blades, and swapped shirts with Neymar after a friendly with Brazil in 2014; it has been, through sheer perseverance and a will to work harder than anyone else, a successful career but he would have traded most of his prior achievements for the feat of getting to Russia. Panama fell agonisingly short of earning a winnable play-off against a team from Oceania to qualify four years ago, Tejada seeming to have put them on their way to a decisive victory against the US before two added-time goals stopped the
party. Now the
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celebrations have hardly died down; the excitement among players and fans is palpable.
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