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FIFA: Canucks keen on UAE repeat


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Dale Mitchell's Team Canada are leaving nothing to chance ahead of hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup next July and hope to find inspiration from home comforts, 'Canuck spirit' and the trailblazers of UAE 2003.

Having already played four games (three losses, one win) at the Chivas Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico in January, the Canucks are now getting set to try their luck against the U-20 national teams of Norway, China and hosts Portugal at the 24th Porto International Tournament from 7 to 16 April in what is shaping up to be an exhaustive preparatory period before the U-20 showpiece gets underway in summer of '07.

Mitchell, who has held the reins of the youth squad for four years (since 2002) and guided Canada to two consecutive World Championships, is hoping to find the right balance of home-grown talent and cultured practitioners based overseas.

Ipswich Town's Jaime Peters, Hibernian's Keegan Ayre, and Rushden and Diamonds striker Simeon Jackson will not be released by their clubs for the Porto trip. Also, St. Pauli midfielder Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, Ontario defender Nana Attakora-Gyan, and Fairfield University midfielder Kerr McLeod are all out of contention with injuries.

Despite missing a handful of potential starters, Mitchell - who played every match for Canada the only time they reached a FIFA World Cup, in Mexico in 1986 - still sees the Porto jaunt as a tremendous opportunity to trim his squad and get a good look at some new faces.

"As we build towards the U-20 World Cup in 2007, our players will have great opportunities to compete against some of the top countries in world youth soccer," Mitchell remarked. "The King's Cup in Portugal is certainly a chance for our guys to measure themselves against some of the best from Europe and Asia."

In addition to the handful of injuries, for the second time this year Toronto-born FC Porto defender Steven Vitoria respectfully declined Mitchell's invitation to join up with the squad.

As the boss builds in hopes of putting a fighting eleven on the pitch as finals hosts, he will surely be looking to recapture the spirit of the team he coached in the United Arab Emirates in 2003.

UAE dreaming

Led, quite brilliantly, by the wonderful tandem of Josh Simpson and Iain Hume, the Canadian squad - considered outsiders in the Emirates - threw aside the script and roared to within a hair's breadth of a semi-final berth.

Becoming the first Canadian (Men's) national team at any age level to reach the knockout stages of a FIFA World finals, the side were riding a wave of confidence and put together some fine displays of football along the way.

With a win over the Czech Republic in their final group match in Dubai, the Canucks qualified for the second round as one of the top third-place finishers, progressing from a group that also contained eventual champions Brazil and a powerful Australian eleven.

In their Round of Sixteen scrap with brawny African outfit Burkina Faso, foraging midfielder Josh Simpson - who now plays in England with Millwall - scored one of the goals of the tournament to book a spot in the quarter-finals for the affable side. And up against European royalty Spain, the upstart Canucks kept up the charge.

Hume's stunner just after the break equalised Iniesta's opener and forced extra time. Arizmendi then sealed a nervy 2-1 win for Spain as they headed to the final. But Canada were far from down, knowing they had made more than a small mark at the world finals where little, save grit and endeavour, was expected from them.

After the tournament, Simpson summed up the concept of 'Canuck Spirit,' born in the country's ice Hockey rinks but skilfully transferred to its football pitches.

"We give everything we have," he says. "And all we want to do is demand some respect from some of these teams. Everybody fights for each other in our team. We've grown up hearing we are underdogs, underdogs, underdogs…a lot of times we feed off of it. If we win, we make history, if we lose, so what? The Canuck style is about having a big heart."

Home cooking

It will take more than just heart to repeat the feats of UAE next year on home soil. But the support of a wildly enthusiastic Canadian public is sure to help.

"In Canadian history, apart from the staging of the summer and winter Olympic games, I don't think there is a sporting event which would rival what we are about to take on in 2007 and we are all very excited about that," Canadian Soccer Association Chief Operating Officer Kevan Pipe told FIFA.com while attending Netherlands 2005 (where Canada went out in the group stage) as an observer.

The Canadians - who are playing in their fourth consecutive U-20 finals and their eighth overall - will also take heart in the fact that the last time the country hosted a FIFA finals, things went decidedly well for the red-clad North Americans.

Fans came out in droves to support the Canadian U-19 women's team, setting a score of attendance records as their team surged to the final of the inaugural FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship in 2002.

Without a doubt Mitchell and his boys will be banking on similar success and support in the summer of 2007.

Canada squad for Porto Tournament:

Asmir Begovic, Kyle Oliveira, Kent O'Connor, Stephen Lumley, David Edgar, Cristian Nunez, Jacob Lensky, Alex Elliott, Andrea Lombardo, Will Johnson, Oliver Babineau, Pierre-Rudolph Mayard, Emmanuel Gomez, Daniel Revivo, Mike D'Agostino, Gavin McCallum, Joey Loreth, Stefan Caulfield.

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