Canada soccer revival starts
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press
Lost in the fanfare of the world's second-biggest soccer tournament featuring many of the world's best teams is the resurrection of a soccer program belonging to a hockey nation.
As Germany, Italy, England, Spain, France, Holland and 10 other nations capture the soccer spotlight by battling for European soccer supremacy in Portugal, on a bumpy field in the beautiful city of Kingston, Canada has taken the first steps in returning to the world's most important soccer tournament, the 2006 World Cup.
The team took the first step in qualifying by winning a two-game series against Belize. It wasn't much of a challenge. It will get more difficult from here. Canada will be grouped with three other teams in a home-and-home series. The top two will qualify and enter a final group with five other teams. From that group, the top three tams qualify for the World Cup.
Given the state of the national team a year ago, any thought of qualifying for a World Cup would have been ludicrous. Coach Holger Osieck rubbed a number of players the wrong way. Some wouldn't play for him while others were critical of his my-way-or-the-highway style of play, especially since his style didn't appear to be working. Canada's world ranking in the sport has been dropping faster than Enron stock options.
Then Osieck left and the Canadian Soccer Association named Frank Yallop as the coach.
"He's one of us," said Appin's Jason deVos, who captained the national team until the first game against Belize. "Every player was delighted he was named the coach."
The delight showed. Spend an hour watching the Canadians practise and you realize this team is far more relaxed, far happier and far more ready to play than they've been. There's plenty of laughter and the drills are done quickly and efficiently. They still may not qualify but they are a much better team to watch. But the players believe they can qualify, something that was missing as early as two years ago.
"Why not us?" asked Yallop. "There's no reason we can't qualify."
It's a common thread through the team.
"This is the best chance I'll have to qualify," said deVos. "This is the best national team I've played on. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe we could make it. I'd just be wasting my time.
"There was a time when we couldn't score or generate chances. Not now. If we play the way we are capable, we can score goals."
DeVos is the most recognizable figure in the Canadian backline. Capped 47 times for Canada, the 30-year-old has just signed a three-year contract with Ipswich Town of the English First Division. He's lived through the high -- a 2000 Gold Cup win -- and the lows too numerous to mention.
"But Jason is always the same," said Yallop. "He knows what he has to do. You ask him to do something, he does it. He's always there giving it everything and the lads love to play with him.
"He has matured and developed. I'm glad he's going to the Ipswich. He'll continue to get better."
Qualifying might seem like a long shot. It always seems like a long shot where Canada is involved. Canada has only made one World Cup tournament and that was in 1986. In three games in Mexico, they failed to score a goal. Many soccer fans in this country despair that Canada will never qualify again.
But this team does have potential. They have an experienced backline with deVos and Mark Watson, who has played 74 times for Canada.
Where they've made great strides is on the front lines, where instead of praying for a goal they can actually help themselves, create chances and score.
"When you have a Tomasz Radzinski around, it shows the others how good you have to be to play in the Premier League, and it's rubbing off," said Craig Forrest, a former national team goalkeeper and now a television soccer analyst.
Radzinski plays for Everton in the English Premier League and only recently has come back to Canada's national team.
Against Belize, the level of finishing wasn't vital. Where it will become vital will be in the next round against much stronger teams.
"This will likely be my last chance at the World Cup," said deVos, who has sacrificed a great deal to play for Canada. "I'll be 32 if we qualify and play. I'll be 36 when the next one comes around."
Qualifying for 2006 would provide deVos with the ideal location to conclude his long international journey -- and with a just reward for the price he's had to pay.