Ottawa Citizen

CANADA CAN THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND FOR QUALIFIERS

- THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Soccer’s eyes may be focused on Europe right now. After all, Euro 2008 is a massive event showcasing some of the world’s greatest players and teams.

But it’s not the World Cup and that’s why my eyes will be staring firmly in another direction for a couple of days in the coming week.

There is more high-class Canadian soccer talent right now than in living memory and, starting in the Caribbean sunshine of St. Vincent tomorrow, that talent will take its first step toward the World Cup finals in South Africa in two years time.

It is a pivotal point in our soc- cer history; the moment when we can actually establish ourselves as a respectabl­e internatio­nal nation. And I, for one, have no intention of not watching every minute of it.

The opening round of CONCACAF qualifiers has Canada playing home and away against St. Vincent & The Grenadines and, unusually, Canada is the overwhelmi­ng favourite.

The reasons are clear. Canada is ranked 60th in the world right now while Vincy Heat — as the locals like to call this team — clocks in at 147th. The island chain boasts maybe 120,000 people, which is hardly larger than Kanata. It has lost its last three games to Barbados, Cuba and Jamaica and its best player — current Columbus Crew defender “EZ” Hendrickso­n — quit playing for his country in January.

By no stretch can this be called a Caribbean powerhouse.

So why is there so much caution in the Canadian camp? Coach Dale Mitchell talked this week about the danger of underestim­ating the opposition, about St. Vincent’s “good athletes”, about how difficult it is to get informatio­n on the players.

Dwayne De Rosario — one of the best in the MLS — suggests Canada has to take the games seriously and Toronto FC and national veteran Jim Brennan doesn’t know anything about St Vincent players so talks about nice beaches, fishing and golf “down there.”

Let’s get real boys. You are the best squad Canada has ever assembled. Midfielder Julian de Guzman, the first Canadian to play in Spain’s La Liga, has just been voted Deportivo’s top player. Fullback and captain Paul Stalteri played a major role in keeping Fulham in the English Premier League this spring, although he is technicall­y on loan from Tottenham. Atiba Hutchinson operates as a regular attacking midfielder with Copenhagen. And there are others.

Less than two years ago, then Canadian Soccer Associatio­n president Colin Lindford told me long-time Canadian internatio­nal and former Fulham striker Tomasz Radzinski would be thrilled to be playing with the squad because he believes this is the strongest Canada ever. “He told me he would be proud to play with any of them,” Lindford said.

Lindford is also the man who was convinced qualifying for the World Cup finals was the cornerston­e if soccer was to really take hold in Canada. Lindford may have been subsequent­ly squeezed out while trying to ensure this, but the objective has not changed. Current president Dominic Maestracci says so. So does general secretary and marketing whiz Peter Montopoli and technical director Stephen Hart.

Somewhat strangely, Hart is acting as one of coach Mitchell’s assistants on the men’s team. There are those who wonder who would be boss in these circumstan­ces. Does Mitchell work for Hart or Hart for Mitchell? Who cares? Winning is all that counts and Canada has the guns to do that, both in the St. Vincent capital of Kingstown tomorrow and at Saputo Stadium in Montreal on Friday.

I know miracles can happen. But St. Vincent is a rank outsider. Put it this way. If Canada cannot win this series, we might just as well pack the whole thing in.

Talk about packing the whole thing in, maybe it is time for Italy to wave the white flag at Euro 2008. It was wrecked by the Netherland­s and was lucky not to suffer the same fate against the Romanians yesterday. But one point from two games is just not good enough.

Then it can hand that flag to the French, who were even more emphatical­ly whipped by the Dutch yesterday. One point in two games is just not good enough from the French either.

Fancy both World Cup finalists being destroyed in the space of four days. Who’d have “thunk” it? Certainly not me and certainly not the Romanians, I fancy. If they manage to beat the Dutch in their final opening-round game, they will go through and nothing that either France or Italy do to one another will matter. They will both be dead in this killer of a group.

May I just say that the way Marco van Basten’s team is playing is a delight for world soccer. I am told there is an old Dutch saying that talks about how unstoppabl­e they are when they have “the wind in our sails.” That’s clearly true judging by the past four days.

Here’s hoping Canada gets wind in its sails down on the ocean island of St Vincent. It could blow very good things in the direction of this country’s soccer future.

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