The history of soccer is littered with players who become legends in their own local communities, countries or regions, but never gain recognition from the wider soccer-loving world. And though he's played in eight countries and on four continents, Panamanian striker Blas Pérez is one of those players.
Pérez has been capped over 100 times by his country and had a short stint in Spain, but most European fans (or just people who primarily follow the European game) don't know his name. However, fans of Mexican, American or CONCACAF international soccer likely cringe at the mention of him. Because more so than most strikers, Pérez is a professional agitator.
That doesn't mean he's without attacking talent. For most of the 15 years that he's played up top for Los Caneleros, Pérez has been their most potent goal-scoring threat, finding the back of the net 39 times in 105 international games. He's set up his fair share of goals too, he's a set piece threat, he can win aerial duels and he's excellent at holding up the ball before distributing to teammates. Any CONCACAF nation — yes, even the United States or Mexico — would have loved to have had him available for selection when he was in his prime. Agitator or not, he was one of the region's best strikers of the 2000s.
What he's really famous for, though — what opposing players, coaches and fans will always remember him for — is the darker side of the game. He's made countless tactical fouls that he was whistled for, and three times as many more off the ball that the referee never saw. He's scraped, clawed and thrown elbows just as nasty as any central defender can. North and Central American soccer has probably never seen a dirtier striker. Even if they think they can contain his attacking ability, the prospect of facing him fills defenders with dread.
Pérez is still an effective MLS and CONCACAF player, but at 35 years old, it's fair to say he's past his prime. He probably doesn't have too many international tournaments left in him. So it's a blessing that before Pérez finally calls it quits on his career, he gets one shot at playing on a massive international stage.
Despite regularly making it to the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying and getting to the semifinals of the Gold Cup, Panama has never managed to qualify for a World Cup. They've never been one of the invitees to a Copa América before either. Pérez has been one of Panama's greatest ever players, but he hadn't helped them into a tournament with massive global interest until this year, when they beat Cuba to qualify for Copa América.
So for the first time, the entire planet will get a chance to see what fans of the game in his part of the world have known for a decade-plus: that Blas Pérez is one of the nastiest, dirtiest, most ruthless strikers in the world. He's as likely to draw blood as he is to draw a penalty. And as much as people hate watching him play against the side they support, he's the kind of player that everyone wishes they had helping their favorite team.
There's more to Panama than Pérez, of course — they have a very experienced team with 11 players in their 30s, and nine that will enter Copa América on 70 or more caps. But the squad as a whole follows Pérez's lead by tackling hard, running all game, getting into scuffles, working over the referee and just generally making life miserable for their opponents. And if there's one player worth paying attention to during Panama games, it's Pérez, the master of their style of play.
This summer, regional legend Blas Pérez will have at least three chances to show the rest of the world what they've been missing out on all these years. It's probably his last chance. Appreciate him while you can.