U-20 offers a world of difference

ROB BRODIE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:07 AM ET

Upon first glance, it appears to be the most elite of clubs.

Scan the champions' list for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and it's no surprise to find dominance by a pair of South American soccer superpowers. Between them, Argentina (five) and Brazil (four) have claimed nine crowns -- more than half the titles awarded since this event began in 1977 in Tunisia.

Portugal (twice), Spain, Yugoslavia, West Germany and the Soviet Union are the only other champs. Every one of them from Europe, the planet's other hotbed of soccer.

Not a whole lot different, you might say, than the World Cup itself, in which only seven countries have ever reigned supreme in nearly 70 years of footballing. And yes, they're all from Europe or South America, too.

But dig a little deeper into U-20 history and you'll find the world is a much wider -- and more unpredictable -- place at this level. Nigeria, Ghana, Japan and Qatar have all been finalists at least once in what was once known as the world youth championship.

So it won't exactly be a surprise to see an Asian or African nation shock the world, so to speak, at some point over the next three weeks.

It really is a whole different game, you see.

"The World Cup is like a game of chess," CBC analyst Dick Howard says about the men's event. "All the players know each other. They play against each other in the Champions League or some other place.

"But the vast majority of teams at this (U-20) tournament don't know each other. So it's almost like a game of checkers. These players do make mistakes ... it's a more uninhibited kind of soccer.

"Upsets happen all the time, and that will happen in Canada."

They will occur because of the sparkling play of a young, budding star hoping to earn fame and fortune in the globe's biggest (and yes, wealthiest) soccer leagues. There is no bigger or better stage to show your stuff, to earn a chance to play for big pay against the world's best.

"It's the theatre of dreams," said Howard, noting many top clubs in Europe will send scouts to this event. "If a young player from Congo or Zambia impresses, he can wind up signing a professional contract in Europe.

"A lot of reputations will be made by these young players."

And it just might mean some turbulent moments for the traditional powerhouses and the days and weeks ahead.

ONE MILLION CHEERS?

Tournament organizers announced yesterday that nationwide ticket sales for this U-20 World Cup have hit the 940,000 mark, guaranteeing it will be at least the second most successful ever in terms of ticket sales.

The 1983 tournament, held in Mexico, is the only U-20 World Cup to have ever attracted more than one million spectators.

But this year's event, being held at six Canadian venues, is now on the brink of that magic number.

"If we can top a million, that would be fantastic," said Howard.

The pre-tournament goal was a much more modest 520,000, but that target has long been surpassed.

GREAT SCOTS

If you're a Scotland supporter in the nation's capital, you might want to be satisfied with your favourites finishing second in the Victoria-based Group F. The runner-up among that bunch gets a second-round date at Frank Clair Stadium on July 12 against No. 2 in Group B.

The Scots are in tough in Victoria in a group that includes Under-20 power Nigeria, Asian finalist Japan and Costa Rica.

CORNER KICKS

The Ontario government announced yesterday a $1-million donation to assist the Canadian Soccer Association in hosting tournament matches in Ottawa and Toronto ... Panama midfielder Francisco Castaneda is suspended for his side's opening match against North Korea because of a ban carried over from a previous competition.


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