Experts' under-20 World Cup predictions

GEORGE GROSS

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

It was shaping up to be another dull summer in Canada for playoff pool junkies. Gone were basketball's March Madness as well as the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs.

However, the poolies catch a break this summer with an event that carries the drama of March Madness.

The largest single-event sporting competition in Canadian history -- the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup -- will kick off today with two matches in Ottawa and another two in Montreal.

Twenty four teams will play in six groups of four in single round-robin play followed by straight elimination matches for the advancing teams. The poolies will have a field day predicting which teams in each group will advance and which will then win successive elimination games to reach the final.

With, no doubt, a few bucks riding on the outcome of each game, I felt it might help to obtain the opinions and predictions of some soccer experts. (It also makes the writing of a column easier.) Here are some examples:

ASK THE COMMISH

As a journalist in a city that boasts the Toronto FC, it was only natural to ask the commissioner of Major League Soccer for his opinion.

"I'm not a gypsy and that's why I never make predictions," said MLS commissioner Don Garber of New York. "I'm only happy that North American soccer fans who are passionate about the game, will get to see a high quality tournament."

Politically correct statements are great for public figures, but of no help to the poolies.

Since it is a FIFA-owned tournament, it was logical that I ask the opinion of Dick Howard, former world-class goalie in North America and a member of FIFA's technical committee. Howard, who is as clever handling an interview as he was stopping a ball, didn't go out on much of a limb, but at least picked teams he felt would go a long way.

"I think that Brazil and Argentina will meet in the final," said Howard, the occasional television and radio commentator. "They look to me as the strongest teams. After them, I rate Spain to make it to the semi-finals. One shouldn't overlook Mexico, which won the junior tournament in 2005 in Peru by beating Brazil.

"As for the Canadian team, if they can get into the next round, they might even make it to the quarter-finals.

"The team that could cause trouble is the Republic of Korea, which lost a very close under-17 match to Brazil.

"Scotland should have a lot of supporters in Western Canada, but teams from Africa may have a tough time.

"What fascinates me is the great interest in the tournament and the impact Canada will make on the world scene. Sponsors are realizing it, which is why the advertising revenue is hitting $2 million."

Howard's occasional sidekick in the electronic media is Gerry Dobson, who has become a student of the game in recent years. The Rogers' Sportsnet broadcaster said:

"I pick Argentina to win the tournament, not because they won the event five times but because they put a lot into it, mostly pride.

"I would pick Spain as Argentina's final opponent. The Spaniards won the under-19 European championship last year and they have a powerful team."

Speaking of electronic media, the CBC will be doing a yeoman's job covering the championship in all six cities and its boss, Scott Moore, also leans towards South America.

"I pick Argentina and Brazil in the final," said Moore. "I'm not forgetting Canada, though. I think they'll make it to the semi-finals."

My friend, Dr. Simon McGrail, handles the scalpel better than a microphone or television camera. But as a younger man, he used to play goal for Burnley, an English first-division team. He was also team doctor of the Maple Leafs until he resigned and moved to Nova Scotia.

McGrail threw new names into the mix:

"I think the Czech Republic and Portugal could meet in the final," he said.

Speaking of old friends and soccer enthusiasts. I couldn't skip by Terry Kelly's name. Terry is a prominent Oshawa lawyer, former director of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., president of the Ontario Soccer Association and is recognized as the world's leading gate-crasher at soccer matches. (He really doesn't crash through the gates, he only buys his tickets five minutes after the start of the game when they are cheaper).

"My heart is with Canada," said Kelly. "But I don't think they will win. I'll go to see matches in Ottawa, Toronto and, perhaps, even to the west. After the first round, I'll have a clearer picture."

Lenny Lombardi, son of CHIN radio founder Johnny Lombardi, didn't take much time to answer my question:

"I believe Portugal is the sentimental favourite," he said. "I think they'd have to beat Argentina in the final."

Speaking of Portugal, I asked Alex Franco, owner of the local Portuguese newspaper and a true soccer enthusiast for his opinion:

"The final will be between Argentina and Brazil, while Portugal and the Czech Republic will battle it out for the bronze medal," was Franco's assessment.

There was one voice that wanted to say something heart-warming for Canada Day.

"Canada all the way," predicted the Toronto Sun's own Pat Surphlis, who helped Clive Toye run the Toronto Blizzard team in the 1970s. "In the final, we'll beat Brazil."

Before somebody accuses me of being too timid, here is my prediction: "Portugal, which is Toronto's team in the tournament, will defeat Canada in the final and to hell with all the naysayers.

Of course, I'm not in a betting pool either.


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