U-20 event in good hands

Despite not having a soccer background, Sharon Bollenbach, general manager of the Toronto portion...

Despite not having a soccer background, Sharon Bollenbach, general manager of the Toronto portion of the world under-20 tournament, is thrilled to be part of such a huge event. (Sun Media/Veronica Henri)

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

Her business card reads: "Sharon Bollenbach, general manager, Toronto Site Organizing Committee, FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007."

You'd think you were going to meet a matronly, soccer-weaned woman to discuss the complex job of running FIFA's second largest global tournament.

Wrong!

You walk into Toronto's BMO Field clubhouse and ask for Ms. Bollenbach. You are taken into the bowels of the building to meet a pleasant-looking lady with smiling green eyes whose opening line nearly floored me.

"I have no soccer background," she said. "My background is event management. And I think this World Cup is a pretty big event."

You said it, madam, but how did you get the job that hundreds of soccer executives in Canada would have given their eye teeth for?

"I saw the posting for a general manager's position of the Toronto Site and I just sent in my application, giving my background," said Ms. Bollenbach, a lady of German heritage. "As a woman in charge of event managements, I handled the figure skating world championships in 1996 in Edmonton and in 2001 in Vancouver. Moreover, I was the senior event manager for the Canadian Olympic Committee at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and I was in charge of Canada House in Torino.

"I realized it was a great opportunity to work with an organization such as FIFA and become part of a world-class event."

Ms. Bollenbach was given the job a year ago and she has had her hands full ever since. She and Bruce Thomas, chair of the Toronto Site Committee, were aware that they had just 12 months to prepare for an event which will be followed by soccer fans in many countries, particularly in Argentina, five-time winners of this tournament, and in Portugal, the "home team" of the Toronto site.

"The first item on the agenda was the ticket sales," Ms. Bollenbach said. "Then we had to get on board the people with whom we'll be working. Then we had to link up with local soccer groups and line up volunteers. In addition, we had a couple of FIFA site inspections, reviews of documents, security arrangements, obtainment of the training facilities for the teams, securing proper hotel arrangements, setting up the transportation and the stadium security.

"Another problem to solve was the Toronto Grand Prix, which would have clashed with two of our originally scheduled games at BMO Field.

"So, we moved one of the games to Ottawa and scheduled the other game to start an hour later to allow the racing fans to leave the CNE and the soccer fans to get into the stadium. We also worked out a plan for the spectators and we are encouraging soccer fans to take the TTC."

She didn't have to tell me that the U-20 World Cup will be her biggest event challenge. Because the event is owned by the world's most powerful soccer organization, the Toronto group must make all arrangements to the satisfaction of the FIFA brass. If Ms.

Bollenbach was looking forward to a challenging job, she certainly found one in a tournament in which passion of players and sports fans will play prominent roles. As for the organizers, Bollenbach and her team must make certain that there are no hitches when it comes to service providers, airport security, dealing with the City of Toronto, the Canadian Soccer Association and Toronto transport facilities.

"This tournament is a unique opportunity for Canada to gain respect on the international scene," Bollenbach said. "Even as a person not having a soccer background, the opportunity to be involved with an event that will leave a legacy for the sport in Canada is very gratifying. It's bigger than I ever thought it could be. I'm thrilled to be part of it."

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

FIFA president Sepp Blatter is expected to attend the Toronto event, but so far he hasn't announced his exact arrival. He probably will want to surprise the Toronto organizers ... The U-20 World Cup certainly inconveniences Toronto FC. Because of the World Cup, the next regular-season Toronto FC home game is scheduled for July 29 against Chicago.


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