Edmonton may be the last Canadian venue scheduled to host a FIFA U-20 World Cup match but the city is already buzzing with talk of the new game in town next week... despite the reappearance of a much more familiar brand of 'football' for the locals.
Thursday night marked the start of the new CFL season - a distant cousin of the NFL American Football variety south of the border - and although Edmontonians are super-passionate about their beloved Eskimos team, on opening night against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers it was not hard to find a whole host of 'soccer' fans who seemed just as excited about the arrival of the U-20 finals.
Eskimos running back Ron McClendon is among those keen to see what the fuss is all about but getting to any of the games will prove nigh-on impossible for him as the CFL makes way for the round ball game and Edmonton head off on a sequence of away matches that will keep them out of the city until 20 July, two days after the U-20 World Cup semi-final at the 60,000-seater Commonwealth Stadium and the end of the city's involvement with the tournament.
McClendon, who has more than earned the nickname 'Goldie' with his four dazzling bullion front teeth, said: "I like soccer and David Beckham coming to the MLS has really opened up people's eyes to the sport over here and bringing it to a different level. I also like the American kid who started out when he was 14, Freddy Adu, and I've been following him a lot. Honestly, I really enjoy it all. Every sport needs to have a phenomenon and, for me, Freddy Adu is definitely that guy.
'Great to see'
"I'm from Louisiana in the States and soccer wasn't that big when I was growing up but thanks to Beckham going to Los Angeles, people are really, really starting to catch on now," he added. "I also like Brazil... my name is kinda like Ronaldo, so he's my favourite player and I watch out for him. We'll be on the road for the next few weeks while the soccer is being played here, so hopefully you guys will leave some good karma at the stadium for us. It's great to see where all this is heading."
Eskimos cheerleaders Tracy Young and Karen Cebuliak will be staying back home to catch the football fever, however, and it came as little surprise to learn that their favourite player was LA Galaxy's latest recruit Beckham. "I'm very excited to see all the different teams come to Edmonton, though of course I'm rooting for Canada," said Tracy, while Karen added: "It will be a lot of fun to have the soccer here, for sure. We'll be here for the Canada games."
Ryan van den Berg had the distinction of being judged Edmonton's biggest soccer fan by local TV host broadcaster CBC, winning tickets to all of the matches here, much to the delight of young sons Elis and Eamon. Ryan spent last summer at the FIFA World Cup™, being lucky enough to see both semi-finals of Germany 2006, as well as the final. "It's fantastic to have this event here so I can do it all over again," said Ryan. "I hope it's really successful, helping soccer to continue to grow in Canada. The potential is definitely there and both my boys play the game."
Edmonton locals Tom Ness and son David are also getting in the mood. "We got ourselves tickets for the whole sequence of games in Edmonton," Tom said. "I've been coaching for the last few years and we'll be rooting for Canada, you bet. When the Women's Under-19 World Championship was here in 2002 the atmosphere in the stadium was just awesome. The chants are different to Eskimos games but the crowd for the women's games was just like when we play our big rivals Calgary in the CFL."
For any interested CFL followers out there, a crowd of just over 33,000 turned up to watch the Eskimos play out a 39-39 'tie' with the Blue Bombers on opening night and that despite multiple overtime plays designed to help generate a winner before the rules dictated enough was enough. Draws are not a common feature of North American sports and perhaps it was appropriate to bring one to Edmonton in time for what some might say is the 'real' football.
Congo play Austria at the Commonwealth Stadium on Monday 2 July, with hosts Canada taking on Austria on Thursday 5 July in a double-header which also features Chile v Congo. Even if a 39-39 scoreline will not be emulated by the other footballers, soccer still seems destined to be one of the biggest draws this city has seen.