A victory for Panama is a reason to party

ROB BRODIE

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

An outsider might see it -- and perhaps rightly so -- as merely one small step along the longest of roads.

But when you're Panama and your brief history at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup is littered with nothing but losses, a victory is hardly something to be considered lightly.

"It would be like a carnival," assistant coach Julio Toral said yesterday when asked how soccer-mad Panama would react if their heroes take down North Korea in their opening match at Frank Clair Stadium tonight.

Toral spoke through an interpreter, but his expression spoke volumes as he pondered the kind of party that would be unleashed by Panama's first-ever victory at the U-20 World Cup.

"It would be madness," he said. "It would be craziness."

Such is the passion the world's game brings out in the most ordinary of people at times like this. And the world will literally be watching all the goings-on in Canada over the next three weeks. It's suggested a global audience of 700 million, spread across 150 countries, will catch a glimpse of this tournament on a television screen at some point.

Canadians are about to see first-hand what the fuss is all about. And, in the most stunning of developments, it seems they're hungry to catch soccer fever in unprecedented fashion.

Some 980,000 tickets had been sold coast-to-coast for the 52 tournament matches as of yesterday, making it almost a lock that the one million mark will be surpassed in the next week. It might even shatter the all-time attendance record of 1,155,160, set in Mexico in 1983.

Yes, in Canada, of all places.

But maybe we have really figured this out, that we might never see such a display of exceptional, world-class soccer again in our lifetimes. FIFA considers this its second-most important event, after the World Cup itself. Only the Olympics can also be considered in the same class as a global spectacle, but consider that 650,000 tickets were purchased for the 2006 Turin Winter Games.

As organizers have said all along, it's gonna be huge.

"This is a great opportunity for Canada," said CBC analyst Dick Howard. "We'll never have the World Cup here. The infrastructure just isn't in place for it.

"So this will be the biggest FIFA tournament we'll ever have on our soil."

Meaning we should all savour the magic while it lasts.

Now, let the games begin.

ODDS FAVOUR BRAZIL

Argentina holds a 5-4 edge over South American arch-rival Brazil in number of titles won at the U-20 World Cup. But British bookmaker William Hill predicts the Brazilians, led by superstar Alexandre Pato, will even the score when the 2007 trophy is handed out July 22 at BMO Field in Toronto. Brazil has been listed as an 11-4 favourite, followed by defending champ Argentina, 3-1; Spain, 6-1; Mexico, 7-1, and Portugal, 10-1. The longest shots: New Zealand, Jordan and Gambia, all 150-1. Host Canada's odds sit at 40-1.

PREMIER PERFORMERS

England didn't qualify for this tournament, but there's a bit of rooting interest for footy fans in the birthplace of the beautiful game. Some 15 players from English Premiership teams are listed on official team rosters here, the most from any domestic league based in a non-qualifying country. Spain's La Liga tops them all with representation by 31 players.

FEARSOME FOURSOME

Every global soccer tournament, it seems, has to have its Group of Death in the first round. Howard says that label in this event belongs with Montreal-based Group D, which includes Brazil, Poland, the U.S. and South Korea. "They've all got good pedigree in this tournament," he said.


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