Sparking soccer interest

Under-20 World Cup organizer Bruce Thomas is convinced that the Canadian Soccer Association is...

Under-20 World Cup organizer Bruce Thomas is convinced that the Canadian Soccer Association is getting itself in order. (Sun File/Craig Robertson)

GEORGE GROSS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:12 PM ET

Bruce Thomas must be a soccer nut.

What else would you call the prominent Toronto lawyer, who has spent countless hours over the past 35 years begin involved in the world game.

He was president of soccer clubs and executive of various leagues as well as with the Canadian Soccer Association, and is currently chairman of the Toronto site of FIFA's under-20 World Cup event, the largest international competition held in Canada this side of the Montreal and Calgary Olympics.

Thomas is not only a soccer supporter, but also a very proud Canadian. I spent some time with him the other day in his palatial Forest Hill home and talked to him about this major global soccer tournament for young men, which occasionally presents the world with the likes of a Diego Maradona or a Eusebio.

"By giving us this under-20 World Cup, FIFA has given us a chance to become a country in which soccer is being recognized as a major sport," the legal mind said.

"It was an interesting procedure. Because FIFA awarded us the tournament, we got the soccer stadium. And because of having the stadium, we got Toronto FC, a well-sponsored team with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., looking after things. You know, MLSEL sure knows how to put behinds in the seats."

Thomas continued his synopsis by pointing out to me the other things that the FIFA under-20 World Cup and the existence of Toronto FC offer to Canada and the development of soccer in this country.

"Young kids used to get involved only with hockey," Thomas said. "Now, that we have BMO Field in Toronto and a pro soccer team, the boys are getting interested in soccer and see a chance to make money.

"I firmly believe that there is a bedrock of interest in this under-20 World Cup. How else could we sell out all the games in Toronto? And don't forget that we have many more cultures living here in addition to the Portuguese, Italians, Brazilians and Argentines. We are a city of soccer. Call me what you will, but I think Toronto will become a world soccer city. As Toronto FC and the salaries of the players rise, so will the interest of players in this city."

Who do you credit with this sudden surge of interest in soccer, I asked the propagator of the world game in this city?

"I credit the late Lamar Hunt, who stuck with Major League Soccer by owning three or four teams, which eventually gave us Toronto FC. By that, I'm not suggesting that we'll immediately replace Italy, Germany, Brazil or Argentina as leading soccer nations, but I predict that we will qualify for the World Cup the next time around. I'll also predict that we will not get knocked out again by countries such as Guadeloupe because the credibility of our sport will be at stake. Or, as Winston Churchill used to say: 'This is the end of the beginning.' And I believe it."

Translated, it means that Thomas is convinced that the Canadian Soccer Association is getting itself in order and that the corporate support for soccer is growing. But he is not naive enough when it comes to assessing the chances of the Canadian Under-20 team.

"I'm sure we didn't sell out all the games (including the Olympic Stadium in Montreal) because we expect Canada to be in the final. I know our boys will give it their best, but we must realize the strength of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, the U.S., Czech Republic and some African nations. We are in tough. But our knowledgeable fans are aware of that.

"People know that this under-20 tournament is important. We expect 200 to 300 scouts from several countries watching the future stars. This tournament means a lot to those young men playing for their respective countries where the people are passionate for the game. Canadian fans will find out that the competition and skills will be beyond the level normally seen in Canada."

The FIFA under-20 World Cup's organization is complex. It's FIFA's tournament and its emissaries have been here for weeks making sure that all the facets of the event are up to standards.

The late award-winning Toronto Sun columnist Bob Pennington called soccer the world game. Now Bruce Thomas and his team have to prove that the Canadian organization of the tournament is world class.


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