Tuesday, July 03, 2007

In Canada – a soccer explosion

The world has come to Canada and Canadians are embracing the FIFA U20 World Cup – at levels those in charge of the 24 country event could have never imagined. Sunday event organizers ecstatically reported that more than 1 million tickets have been sold for the three week event. The tournament began Saturday with more than 55,000 soccer fans filling Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and close to 30,000 selling out Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park.

“All of us in our lifetime have dreams," said Jack Warner, FIFA vice president and Chairman of the Organizing Committee for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “Sometimes our dreams come true. What we are seeing here is beyond our wildest expectations.”

The competition got off to an exceptional start this weekend as more than 200,000 spectators attended the first nine matches of the tournament, which were all sold out. The games have delivered fast, exciting and dramatic soccer, helping to promote an unprecedented level of excitement for the sport in the six host cities and across the country.

“Hosting such a prestigious event presents a wonderful opportunity to promote soccer across the country,” said Colin Linford, chairman of the National Organizing Committee for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. “It also presents a wonderful opportunity to promote our country to the world. Over the next three weeks, the FIFA U-20 World Cup will make its mark in Canada and will create a lasting legacy for soccer and sport in our country.”

Canada's ticket sales are second only to the 1983 event in Mexico (1,155,160). The last tournament, in the Netherlands in 2005, sold 502,698 tickets.

"It is the largest single-sport sporting event ever to be held in this country, from a spectator point of view. By far," said Peter Montopoli, the tournament's national event director at a media reception held last week.

"I believe — and I hope — at the end of this tournament somebody from the CSA or even myself could say that we believe the sporting landscape has changed in this country as a fallout of this tournament. The possibility and the potential is certainly there."

Montopoli is correct in his assessment – by the time the final for the event is held in Toronto on July 22, soccer will be the number two sport in Canada – sort of. Baseball is a dead and dying sport in terms of interest in professional baseball in the Frozen North. By the time the 2008 baseball season begins organized (not independent league teams alive in Winnipeg, Quebec City, Calgary and Edmonton) baseball will be dead in Canada except for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Vancouver Canadians a Class-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics. The NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies left Canada five years ago, leaving the Toronto Raptors as the lone Canadian franchise in the NBA. So yes soccer is well on its way to becoming Canada’s number two sport, but in reality if you listed the top-ten sports in Canada hockey would hold spots one through ten, with soccer a distant 11th. However even with that said – the World Cup U20 is destined to leave a positive mark on the Canadian sports landscape for the near and long-term future of sports in Canada.

"I think that's making a statement to people in Canada, to governments and to the sporting world that this sport is real, it's alive and people care about it," Montopoli added. "All they were waiting for was one thing — to deliver a world-class product. And it's here."

Derek Aframe, a vice president with the Octagon sports marketing agency with a background that includes working with the New England Revolution of MLS where he was VP, Operations believes there are many reasons why the U20 World Cup will have a lasting impact.

“In a summer soccer calendar crowded with important matches, the FIFA U-20 World Cup has the greatest implications in terms of its competitive and commercial impact on the 2010 World Cup,” said Aframe. “From a Canadian perspective, the event could not be arriving at a better time.”

“With Toronto FC serving as the model of expansion for MLS with sold-out crowds and arguably the best game-day soccer atmosphere in the league, and the recent success of Canada at the Gold Cup, soccer is enjoying a renaissance. The Gold Cup showing and the young talent that will be part of the U-20 World Cup make Canada an early favourite to earn a spot in the 2010 World Cup,” he said.

“Canada’s Gold Cup roster boasted professionals playing in 12 different countries, and many of the world’s top clubs will be scouting the U-20 tournament for the next batch of Canadian soccer stars. If the Gold Cup was a good measuring stick of the state of Canadian soccer today, the U-20 World Cup will be an important predictor of Canada’s soccer future.

“Since Maradona wowed audiences in leading Argentina to the second U-20 World Cup in 1979, the tournament has been a showcase for the future stars of the game. As teams, sponsors, agents and sports marketers compete ever more fiercely to identify and acquire talent at a young age, all eyes will be closely watching who emerges as the next generation of soccer greats.”

While the U20 World Cup is recognized as FIFA’s second biggest event after the World Cup the runaway success of this year’s event shouldn’t be much of a surprise to FIFA officials. Five year’s ago Canada hosted the first ever FIFA Women's Under-19 World Cup. More than 60,000 jammed Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium for the Canada – USA Final – the event was a ratings smash for Rogers SportsNet one of three Canadian national cable sports networks. Can that magic be captured in a bottle once again?

"The answer is yes -- to both questions," said Ian Bridge, the coach of that women's team and the current head of Canada's senior national women's team told Canada’s National Post. "If Dale's team can get on a roll, that first game is very important for the them to get momentum for both the team and the public (Canada lost 3-0 to Chile Sunday evening). But will it be tougher for Dale's team? For sure it will.

"In '02 there were two teams that were clearly above everyone else [in the women's Under-19 field] -- us and the U.S. It was the first tournament of its kind for that age group."

Saturday evening Argentina met the Czech Republic in Ottawa. It was a magical evening with thousands of Argentina fans proudly wearing their countries blue colors singing and dancing the night away. Friday with Argentina again playing a group round match in Ottawa followed by the United States and Brazil promises to be one of the greatest nights in Ottawa sports history and this after the Ottawa Senators made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Anaheim Ducks.

Soccer fans have a passion North American sports fans just can’t appreciate. Imagine Boston Red Sox fans each drinking a case of Red Bull on their way into Fenway Park – Red Sox Nation on Red Bull, that’s what soccer fans at a World Cup are like.

"People are going to cheer for the other teams because this is a very ethnic country," predicted former Canadian national team coach Bob Lenarduzzi, who will be working the tournament as an analyst for CBC. "I don't think it's a problem. It's a by-product of the ethnic diversity we have here in Canada. We certainly ask for Canadian support, but we need to justify Canadian support by achieving good results on the field."

"The bar is different than it was for the women's Under-19 in '02. This is a much more established event," Lenarduzzi said in a National Post report. "In '02, the momentum grew as the event went on, more so because of the fact the team grew with each win. If the men's team can get on a roll, I think we'll see the same thing come into play."

One of the greater ironies of the U20 World Cup, the finals while in Toronto will be held at Bank of Montreal Field the new home of Toronto FC, Canada’s first MLS franchise. If the finals had been held at either Montreal’s Olympic Stadium or Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium instead of 23,000 tickets being sold for the final match, a crowd of close to 60,000 would have sold out either facility. It might be better for the evolution of soccer as a business and as a sport in Canada the finals will be held in Canada’s biggest city, in the countries first soccer specific stadium.

"These are all things that are independent of each other, but they sustain [soccer]," Lenarduzzi said. "They're filling the building [in Toronto], and you pan the crowd at a Toronto FC game and it doesn't appear to be a strictly North American audience. It appears to be a South American and European atmosphere."

"Look at the TV numbers for the last [men's] World Cup," Bridge pointed out in the National Post report. "They were watershed numbers for North America. Now we've got Toronto FC doing very well?

"But I remember when I was playing in the '70s and '80s and the North American Soccer League was going. I remember thinking, 'This is great.' Then it ended. Why? Because we don't have a soccer culture. This is still a hockey country."

While Bridge makes a fair point as the MLS looks towards it’s future there are at least three other Canadian cities that one day could support the best professional soccer has to offer in North America – Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver all have the necessary keys for successful MLS franchises except for soccer specific stadiums. Montreal is building a 15,000 seat soccer specific stadium and Vancouver has plans for a similar stadium – both would have to increase their capacities to 25,000 to make the economics of the stadiums work for an MLS team. The City of Edmonton has no immediate plans to build a soccer specific stadium.

One interesting note as the host country, Canada is the host broadcaster. All 52 matches are being televised live on Canadian TV (ESPN and their family of networks are providing American coverage) but in all honesty the biggest TV numbers will come from the European, South American and Asian countries competing for soccer’s second biggest prize.

"As Canadians we're often very critical of foreign hockey broadcasts so you can imagine the pressure that brings when an event of this magnitude worldwide is being done by our production group," host broadcaster senior producer Don Peppin told The Toronto Star. "We have to match a very high international standard."

What about the talent – the on field product participating in the U20 World Cup? For FIFA soccer greatness has often begun at this bi-annual event – and this years’ event is no different with plenty of high priced talent competing.

The Globe and Mail consulted player agents and soccer experts in an attempt to identify the top stars of the FIFA U-20 World Cup and their potential value on the international transfer market. The value of some players listed below is the value of their last sale (all currency U.S. unless noted). Others have never been sold, but are the subject of transfer talks and their values are being established. With ranking, name, position, country, club team and potential dollar value if transferred today:

1. Sergio Aguero, striker, Argentina, Atletico Madrid, $30-million.

The weight of Argentina repeating as the under-20 world champions rests squarely on the shoulders of this young goal poacher. In July of 2003, at 15, he played his first game for Independiente of Argentina and became the youngest player to start a match, breaking a record once held by Diego Maradona. Aguero was sold last summer to Atletico Madrid of Spain.

2. Alexandre Pato, forward, Brazil, Internacional, $25-million.

This gifted finisher is being hailed as samba soccer's next big star after leading U-20 South American qualifying with five goals. He will be the main focus of European scouts in this tournament, and British tabloids last week speculated Chelsea is set to offer £17-million ($36.1-million Canadian) for him.
3. Renato Augusto, midfielder, Brazil, Flamengo, $20-million.

With excellent speed on the ball and unbelievable skills, he has already been dubbed the next Kaka by his Flamengo coach. Several European clubs are in hot pursuit, with Manchester United, Chelsea and most recently Olympique Lyon making offers, but he insists that he wants to remain with Flamengo.

4. Lucas, midfielder, Brazil, Liverpool, $14-million.

Lucas Pezzini Leiva was the inspiration behind the revival of the Gremio team in Brazil last year. His play helped him become the youngest recipient of the professional circuit's most valuable player award. Now 20, a recent signing of Liverpool, he is seen by many as a complete two-way player.

5. Marcelo, defender, Brazil, Real Madrid, $9-million.

Real Madrid snapped him up from his former club, Fluminense, for $8.7-million last November, aiming to find a replacement for legendary wing-back Roberto Carlos, who has moved to Fenerbahce in Turkey. Like his speedy predecessor, Marcelo has a nose for scoring.

6. Arturo Vidal, defender, Chile, Bayer Leverkusen, $8-million.

Rated the top talent in Chile, Vidal recently signed a four-year contract with the Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen after a $7.7-million transfer from Chile's Colo-Colo in April. This fullback has blistering pace, and with his knack for forward rushes, he scored six times for Chile during South American preliminary and final-round qualifying.

7. Ever Banega, midfielder, Argentina, Boca Juniors, $7-million.

Banega won acclaim for impressive passing abilities and became Fernando Gago's successor after the defensive midfielder's move to Real Madrid last November. Last week, Banega helped lead his team to a Copa Libertadores championship, even though he took a kick in the stomach from a frustrated Gremio opponent.

8. Giovani dos Santos, forward, Mexico, Barcelona, $5-million.

Nicknamed Gio, he was a key member of Mexico's FIFA U-17 championship side in 2005 and is the son of former Brazilian great Zizinho. Dos Santos was brilliant during the North and Central American and Caribbean U-20 qualifying and received assurances from Mexican senior coach Hugo Sanchez that he is on his radar for qualifying for the World Cup in 2010.

9. Carlos Vela, striker, Mexico, Arsenal, $5-million.

Blessed with blazing speed, his memorable diving header during a 3-0 upset of Brazil in the final of the U-17 World Cup in Peru in 2005 is an unforgettable reminder of his potential. Arsenal's $4-million signing from Chivas of Guadalajara has been on loan to the Spanish club Salamanca, but Vela will likely get his chance to shine at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium next season.

10. Bruno Pereirinha, midfielder, Portugal, Sporting Lisbon, $4-million.

This attacking midfielder has drawn comparisons to Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo for his flamboyant style and similar looks. He was a starter with second-place Sporting Lisbon this season. In 25 appearances with Portugal's national team, he has scored six times, but also is highly rated as a strong distributor of the ball.

And that top-ten list doesn’t include MLS super-star in waiting Salt Lake’s Freddy Adu a member of Team USA. The success of the U20 World Cup will have an important impact on soccer in the United States. Sending a positive message regarding the growth of soccer in Canada reminds FIFA in no uncertain terms the soccer evolution in Canada is more of North American revolution. If FIFA believes in the ‘bigger picture’ the success of the U20 World Cup will only help the United States interest in hosting either the 2010 (if South Africa is forced to bow out) or the 2014 World Cup. Certainly America can expect to host a World Cup no later than 2018 – and that will be an event to behold.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Globe and Mail and The National Post

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