"Some of the young hopefuls you will see compete on Canadian soil this summer are the same players who will feature at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa."
- A legacy of greatness, CBCSports.ca, June of 2007
Who knew that the road from Burnaby, B.C., led all the way to World Cup final in Johannesburg?
Just over three years ago, a young Spanish prospect named Gerard Pique received his first taste of world soccer at the FIFA U-20 World Cup staged in Canada.
Pique, then 20 years old and a fringe player with Manchester United, appeared in all six games for his country at the tournament, and scored in Spain’s amazing come-from-behind victory over Brazil in the Round of 16 at Burnaby’s Swanguard Stadium.
That he missed the deciding penalty in a shootout against the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals did not diminish the fact that Pique was clearly a player to watch for the future – and so it came to pass.
Today, Pique is a regular starter for Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, the club he played for as a youth before being lured to England, and is a key figure for the Spanish national team.
He has been one of Spain’s best players at this World Cup, his giving away a penalty against Paraguay in the quarter-finals notwithstanding.
Pique has been the anchor of a stingy Spanish defence that has conceded just two goals in South Africa, cementing his reputation as one of the best central defenders in the game. His elegance and touch on the ball, and sublime distribution from the back are both among the many reasons why Spain is favoured over the Netherlands ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final at Soccer City Stadium.
"I have learnt from him, even though I am the veteran," Spanish teammate Carlos Puyol told El Pais, Spain’s most widely-circulated newspaper.
"He has it all. I am sure he is best centre back in world right now. There is no comparison. Tactically and technically he is unbeatable."
And to think, Pique took his first major step to international glory on Canadian soil.
Pique isn’t the only graduate from the Canadian class of ’07 who has left his mark in South Africa.
American midfielder Michael Bradley scored a key goal to help the U.S. earn a 2-2 draw with Slovenia in the first round.
Bradley credited his Canadian sojourn as a key factor in his development into one of the U.S.’s most influential stars.
"It was a great experience for us all. There were a number of players in that team who have graduated to the full national team: myself, [Jozy] Altidore, [Freddy] Adu, [Robbie] Rogers," Bradley recently told CBCSports.ca.
"The U-20 World Cup is a great event. You see a lot of good teams, and a lot of the players who have already started to get on the field for big clubs."
Bradley, 22, was singled out as a talented midfielder when he began playing in Major League Soccer in 2004, at the age of 17. Two years later, he was transferred to Dutch side Heerenveen and became the team's midfield general.
A string of outstanding international appearances for the U.S. earned him a lucrative move to the German Bundesliga, where he has become indispensable for Borussia Monchengladbach.
"We were fortunate in that that was a very good under-20 team coached by Thomas Rongen," said Bob Bradley, Michael’s father and the coach of the U.S. senior team.
"Players such as Michael and Jozy Altidore, who were key parts of that team, have done really well to move themselves along and contribute to our senior national side."
Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, who won the U-20 tournament’s MVP award, was already a star with Spanish side Atletico Madrid when he came to Canada. Since then, his stock has risen even further, becoming one of the most exciting and dangerous attacking players in the world – although he saw limited playing time in South Africa.
Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez of Chile, Mexican playmaker Giovani dos Santos, and Argentine Angel Di Maria cut their teeth in Canada, and have all featured prominently for their respective nations at this competition. Dos Santos was named among the three finalists for FIFA’s World Cup Best Young Player award.
Others weren’t so lucky, though.
American sensation Freddy Adu, Brazil’s Alexandre Pato, Bruno Gama of Portugal and Argentine Ever Banega entered the U-20 tournament to great fanfare, but none of them made the trip to South Africa.
Adu has bounced around from team to team (he’s currently on loan at Greek club Aris Thessaloniki), Gama has yet to earn a single cap for Portugal, and Banega has made only two appearances for Argentina’s national team.
But the success stories outweigh the failures, including the remarkable story of Chile.
The South Americans were one of the surprises of the U-20 World Cup, playing enterprising and attacking soccer that won the hearts of Canadian fans.
Chile went undefeated in the competition, including posting a 3-0 win over Canada in the first round, before losing to eventual winners Argentina in the semifinals.
The Chileans salvaged some pride by defeating Austria in the third-place game.
More importantly, their strong run set them up nicely for the future: five players - Mauricio Isla, Gary Medel, Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Carmona – who competed in Canada made the trip to South Africa.