Ian Bridge is one of only 22 Canadians who can proudly claim to have participated at a FIFA World Cup™, lining up for the debutant Canucks at their only-ever finals appearance at Mexico 86. Now, the former Maple Leaf defender is heading back to yet another world finals, this time as head coach of the Canadian U-20 women's team at Chile 2008, which kicks off on 19 November in four cities across the Andean nation.
Bridge, who scored five goals in 33 caps for Canada, is no novice as a manager. This FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup will be his fourth, and the youth competition is typically a great showpiece for the Canadian youngsters. "In the three tournaments so far we have finished fifth on average," Bridge told FIFA.com in an interview from the team's home base in Vancouver. "Some of my greatest memories as a player, coach or in football in general are from the first one back in 2002."
That competition, which Canada hosted in August 2002, was a watershed moment for football in the country affectionately known as the Great White North, and usually associated with ice hockey rather than football. A Canadian team led by current senior team top scorer Christine Sinclair and Kara Lang roared all the way to the final, where they lost on a golden goal to the USA in front of more than 47,000 fans at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. "We had over 35,000 for the semi-final against Brazil that year and then the ground was packed for the final," he said. "It was an amazing experience for me, the players and all of Canada."
When asked if there might be another Christine Sinclair in the current side - reigning U-20 champions after beating the US in Mexico last June - Bridge's response is quick and to the point. "No," he said. "Christine is a once in a lifetime kind of player. We do have some good ones in the side and they will give their all, but I don't see the next Sinclair."
The coach, however, does have a raft of hugely talented young players. Announcing his squad on Wednesday 5 November, he has called in 15 players from the team that pulled in the CONCACAF crown. Leading the squad are senior standout Jonelle Filigno, plus Kaylyn Kyle, Justine Bernier and Erin McNulty, who will all be hoping to guide the Canadians to a better finish than their group stage exit two years ago in Russia.
Bridge, an assistant at senior level, only just took over the U-20 reins again three and a half weeks ago, after the previous coached resigned. Despite this, he thinks his girls have a good chance.
"We have a lot of the qualities that people normally associated with Canadian football: speed, spirit, guts, commitment," Bridge said. "But he we have some very talented young players too. When you look at the individuals we may even be a better to the team that reached the final in 2002.
"What we will need to find between now and when we kick-off is a leader in the team and a great sense of unity," Bridge concluded with optimism in his voice, no doubt looking forward to the opening game on 20 November in Santiago against Japan.
"There are no more weak teams," Bridge said, knowing he will also face outsiders DR Congo and favourites Germany in their Chile 2008 group. "And the Asian teams are well out in front at this age level. They have an infrastructure that is second to none, and their technique and tactics are evidence of that. "I'll tell you just what any other coach would," the ultra-experienced campaigner said in conclusion. "We need a result in that first game, it's crucial."