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SoccerCanada can learn from past Confederations Cup experiences

Posted: Saturday, July 6, 2013 | 12:49 AM

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Brazil's Ramon, left, and Nick Dasovic of Canada concentrate on the ball during their Confederations Cup match at Kashima Soccer Stadium in Kashima, northeast of Tokyo, Saturday, June 2, 2001. The match ended a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara) Brazil's Ramon, left, and Nick Dasovic of Canada concentrate on the ball during their Confederations Cup match at Kashima Soccer Stadium in Kashima, northeast of Tokyo, Saturday, June 2, 2001. The match ended a 0-0 tie. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

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There are a number of factors that Canada can learn from that Confederations Cup period in 2001 and be applied to today. 
There are a lot of stories in Canadian soccer that tend to fade from memory quickly. 

Whether it is a case of a talented kid who slipped through the cracks, failing to reach his potential, or a matter of simply forgetting where we came from, while we charge headlong into the future.

Canadian soccer has a habit of forgetting its history. 

While most of the soccer fans in this country watched with rapt attention last weekend as Brazil put on a clinic against Spain at the Confederations Cup, few would find it easy to remember that 12 years ago it was Canada facing off against Brazil in that same tournament. 

The story from that Confederations Cup, one that saw Canada fail to win a game, but also witnessed them battle to a 0-0 draw against that famed team in yellow, holds many truths for the sport in this country. 

CBC spoke to three players who were there in 2001. They are now each key influences over the game here. Their memories, while varied, help to push back the fog on that time and tell us where the game has been, where it's going and where we'll continue to fail unless we change our course of action.

Transforming player development 

A former international who played in England for much of his career, Jason De Vos is now a colour commentator and soccer analyst on TSN. He is also one of the driving forces behind a movement to transform the way Canada develops its players. 

It was something he says began with a realization at the Confederations Cup.

"It was a difficult tournament," he said. "You look at the calibre of the teams that were in there in 2001: France, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Cameroon, Japan. Japan was fantastic. I saw so much from them. It really opened my eyes to what the game should be about." 

Canada managed to hold the emerging powerhouse to 0-0 in the first half of the opening game but eventually Japan's skill overpowered the Canucks in what would eventually be a 3-0 defeat. 

"What really impressed me about Japan was their technical proficiency," said De Vos. "For most of us, for most of our players, we were playing at the time in second-tier levels - whether it was in England or Germany, bullish leagues. For us to play against a team like Japan it really hammered home that to play at the highest level of the game, to challenge for a place at the World Cup, you really have to be supremely gifted in your technical ability.

"If we can learn from that as a nation, look at what Japan has done, and implement even some of the things that they've done, it would go a long way to us producing better technical players."

Impressive performance

Craig Forrest played top flight football in England for over 15 years as a keeper. He's now a host of Soccer Central on Sportsnet and the colour commentator for a number of national team games. 

He too remembers being impressed in the Japan game - but not by their opponent's performance, but by theirs. 

"The first game against Japan, we lost 3-0," he said. "But the first half was probably the best first half I've seen from a national team in this country - other than finishing. It was incredibly disappointing because we had played very well and not converted any of our chances. 

"Japan was clinical though. They were able to score some quick ones in the second half, through fantastic on the deck play and it kind of took the shine off an otherwise good performance." 

For Forrest, the missed opportunities extend well beyond just the finishing. They include a number of players walking away from Canada over the years, as well. 

"The difference back then was that players were there to play for Canada," said Forrest. "There was not really anybody going to play for anybody else, or look at what their best options in other countries were. The way the rules are presented now, with Canadian players not being actually tied with any country until they play a competitive match - which, for Canada, would be Gold Cup or World Cup qualifying - it has made it incredibly difficult for us." 

Forrest sees a hard road ahead, as well, if we don't find a way to start identifying our top talent early and bringing them into the system. 

"It's going to be difficult going forward," he said. "We're going to have some players with dual passports move over to Europe at a young age, then they'll suddenly appear, we'll try to get a hold of them and they'll make a decision. I think that doesn't bode well for us. 

"The squad you need to get is a bunch of guys who are willing to play for Canada. That was a big thing for our squad. We didn't get a lot of attention in Canada, but it didn't matter to the players involved. We were really, really proud to play for our national team."

Wealth of experience

Nick Dasovic has played for teams all over the world. He's also coached for teams all over the continent - including Vancouver, Toronto and San Jose, where he is now an assistant.

Additionally, as a Canada U-20 coach he's had a wealth of experience in seeing where the current program is going. 

"I remember being part of the game that Canada tied Brazil 1-1 in Edmonton, a friendly," he said. "And in that game we were playing their 'A' squad. For me that was more satisfying than the 0-0 draw against Brazil at the Confederations Cup. To play on that stage was just so rewarding in of itself though. 

"Any time you play against the team in yellow, you know you're playing one of the best teams in the world. We felt to get that 0-0 draw, even against their 'B' side in 2001, was an accomplishment."

In a country where the successes are fleeting, you have to take them where you can. It was a high water mark for that generation. 

For Dasovic, that has meant taking real stock of the current crop of players Canada has and identifying how to ensure they find their own means of success. 

"Those players that have been identified for the program, and are going to make up the squad going forward, how much are they going to be able to play club football between now and when the next qualifying cycle kicks off?" Dasovic asked. "I think it comes down to we had a group of guys [at the Confederations Cup] who were playing regular first-team minutes with their club teams, playing regular international games back. That's crucial when you go to play for your national team. You're fit, ready to go and in a competitive state of mind."

Lessons learned

For all three, there are a number of factors that Canada can learn from that Confederations Cup period and be applied to today. 

For DeVos, it's about ensuring we plan for the future. 

"If I look back on that time, I think the one thing that disappointed me the most was the legacy that we could have left that we never did," he said. "We could have made massive changes to soccer but never did. Probably because the CSA, at that time, were not equipped to facilitate those changes, in the key positions like directors and executives. 

"I think we're in a position now, with the CSA executives we have, to be able to make massive changes."

For Forrest, he agrees that opportunities have been missed. 

"I think it's disappointing in recent years we haven't been able to pick-up the likes of Jonathan DeGuzman and Junior Hoilett," Forrest said. "I think we missed something significant there. Nowadays you look at MLS and hope that the three Canadian clubs will produce and play our players. And we absolutely have to change that rule that Canadians have to be classified as foreigners on U.S. teams. 

"There is no doubt we're getting screwed there. But with the players playing abroad we need to instill in them a desire to play for Canada."

Dasovic also points to the need for support from the Canadian clubs - something they didn't really have in 2001 - but also puts the onus squarely on the players to earn their chances.  

"I'm not having a go at the Canadian clubs," Dasovic said. "But in general we don't have a lot of our players getting games. It's a tough one - coaches are coming to those cities, they need to win games. To them, it's irrelevant where you're from, their job is to win with the best possible players." 

That's not an excuse though, he stresses. Case and point, a number of Canada's players at the upcoming Gold Cup aren't seeing regular first-team minutes. 

"It's up to this new crop of players to take ownership in their own lot in life," he said. "If they're not playing, why aren't you playing? Work harder. I think a lot of times we say they're not getting the chance. I think that in football and in life, that if you work hard enough, you do the right things, that eventually you'll get that chance. It's up to you to be ready." 

"I'm not necessarily saying that's the case with these players, but for Canada we shouldn't be blaming external factors and perhaps looking internally."

DeVos stresses something similar regarding accountability.

"When we look at our national team program, we're often reactive," he said. "I think we're at a point where we can't do that anymore. We're so far behind people that we're competing for World Cup places that we need to take responsibility and be proactive. And to do that, we have to put a very structured development plan in place for our young players."

Forrest sums up the links between the Confederation Cup age and today nicely.

"Until we take the game seriously in Canada, on a mass level, it's always going to be a challenge for us," he said. "We need a development plan. We need to learn from our mistakes and find ways to retain more players. Otherwise we will continue to play the same story out - over and over - talking about the same things another 12 years down the road." 

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