Panama hopes in safe hands

The life of Luis Mejia is not like that of most 16-year-olds. A superb display in his side's opening game of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 has seen to that. The teenage shotstopper, who only took up football four years ago, performed heroics to keep Korea DPR at bay, a performance that has seen him hailed as Panama's latest sporting hero by the fans and press back home.
Mere hours after his commanding showing between the sticks in the 0-0 draw against the North Koreans, a result that secured his country's first ever FIFA World Cup point, Manotas spoke freely to about his rise to prominence at Canada 2007.

All in his stride
Giving off an impressive air of serenity and taking the time to give every question its due thought, Luis Mejia shows a level of maturity befitting professionals many years his senior. Particularly when you discover that he only donned the keeper's jersey for the first time just four years ago. "Before then I played in a host of different positions, but I'd never been in goal," says the player known as Manotas. "Then one day they stuck me there for a tournament and I only conceded once. I stayed there from that point on. Since then everything has happened really fast."

He is not wrong. Given a genetic jump-start by having a former professional basketball player as a father, over a remarkably short space of time the gifted youngster has made the No.1 shirt in both Panama's U-17 and U-20 sides his own. And now, after his eye-catching display in the Canaleros' opener in Canada, the youngster has received rave reviews in the sporting press. "I'm taking it all in my stride, and I'm even trying to focus on the challenges ahead and not on what's already happened," he says sagely. "Do I get nervous in interviews? Not at all, journalists have a job to do and it comes quite naturally to me. I'm always keen to read what has been said about me after games," adds the agile custodian, who measures in at 1.90m.

Nor does the teenager shy away from directing the odd verbal volley at his more experienced colleagues, should the need arise. "The coaching staff and my team-mates have all urged me to express myself out on the pitch, so it's something that comes easily," says this fan of Real Madrid stalwart and former U-20 participant Iker Casillas. "They (my team-mates) don't get angry with me if I tell them off, nor do they treat me any differently. That's very important."

A star in the making?
After the final whistle against Korea DPR, Mejia was quick to call his family back in Panama City. Waiting expectantly for the call were Luis' sister, his two brothers and his proud grandmother Maria. "She told me that everybody was saying really nice things about me and she asked me to keep performing like that, because she was very proud of me," says Mejia, whose team are set to take on reigning champions Argentina in their next game.

Even ahead of facing front men of the calibre of Atletico Madrid striker Sergio Aguero, Mejia refuses to be overawed: "I'm not worried about who my opponents are, I'm just focusing on playing my part out on the pitch." Fine words, but Mejia cannot help but allow himself a glimpse of the bigger picture: "If things go well for me I could catch the eye of foreign clubs. My goal is to play my football in a top league. Do I have any preferences? Spain and Mexico, but I wouldn't rule anywhere out." Ambitious words from a player clearly determined to ensure his stock continues to rise. With Panama's historic first point safely in the bag, Manotas is dreaming of a repeat performance against the mighty Albicelestes.

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