"Of the new crop of players coming through, I particularly like the U-20 striker Nicolas Canales. I think he'll have a major say in the future of Chilean football." High praise indeed, especially coming from such an authority as Marcelo Salas, the undisputed hero and captain of La Roja. The rest of the world can judge for itself when the teenager showcases his considerable talent later this year at the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands.
Though a long-time admirer of El Matador, Canales came to the game more by accident than design. Chileans were particularly grateful for this twist of fate at the recent South American U-20 qualifiers in Colombia, where five goals and a series of inspired performances by the strapping six-footer helped secure their historic qualification for Netherlands 2005.
With the 10 June start date approaching fast, FIFA.com talked exclusively to the Universidad de Chile front man about the challenges facing him and his fellow countrymen.
Many people were surprised to see Chile qualify. Were the players too?
Yes, I suppose we were a bit. It's rare for Chile to qualify for a world championship.
We came into the qualifiers with a useful squad of players hoping to do well, but I think even we were a little taken aback at how well we played.
How are preparations going for the Netherlands?
I'd say we're about eighty percent there. The team that secured qualification hasn't been together much since Colombia, but that's understandable. It's partly because the coach has been trying out new players, and partly because some of the squad have been unable to attend training because of commitments with First Division sides.
On the last two occasions Chile qualified for a world championship at youth level, they were eliminated in the first round. What is your objective this time?
We want to go as far as possible. I think we are capable of getting out of our group. With the exception of Spain, who are always tough opponents, the other sides in the group, Honduras and Morocco, have yet to make their mark at this level. But we don't want to get overconfident as that might work against us. We'll just take it one game at a time, try to get past the first round and then see what happens.
Who would be your favourites for the title?
Brazil are always formidable opponents. As well as playing spectacular football, they are strong and forceful. Argentina are another team to watch for. We played both of them in the qualifiers and gave as good as we got. If we reproduce that kind of form, then we'll have our chances like everyone else.
The consensus in the Chilean media is that you are the real leader in the team. Are they right?
I don't know. That's not really for me to say. I admit that I like to have a positive influence on the side, and that I enjoy being involved in everything. I regularly chat with my team-mates and offer encouragement whenever I can.
In a recent interview, Marcelo Salas singled you out as one of the most promising young players in Chilean football. How did that make you feel?
Did he really say that? Coming from a striker like him, who I've looked up to more than anyone else, that means a lot. That just makes me want to succeed in this profession even more. Hopefully, I'll be able to reproduce for my country a little of what Marcelo has done.
Are your games similar?
Not exactly. Because of my physique, I'd model myself more on someone like Andriy Shevchenko. I'm right-footed, tall and strong. I'm also good in the air and pack a powerful shot. Someday, I'd love to be as effective as Andriy or Marcelo. It's something I'm working towards.
Does the fact that the senior team are struggling put extra pressure on yourselves?
No, not really. As I said before, a world championship appearance is a rare treat for Chileans, so I imagine there won't be too much expectation. The press and the public aren't on our backs. So no, I'd say it's more of an additional motivation than an added pressure.
Are you dreaming of being the top scorer in the Netherlands ?
Well, when I went to Colombia for the South American qualifiers I had no fixed goals in that regard, yet I finished as one of the top scorers. Naturally, I'd love to do something similar and I'm certainly motivated, but I have to admit it would be a little strange.
I've always liked football, but I never harboured ambitions of becoming a professional player. Unlike other children, I wasn't interested in joining football schools either. The thing is that I was hyperactive, and the doctor told my mother I needed to take up a sport to burn off this excess energy. If it hadn't been for that, I might never have played seriously. So you can imagine what it would be like to go from reluctant beginner to top scorer at a world championship...
A good showing in Holland could pave the way for a move to Europe
Yes, it could. Even in Colombia, there were scouts and reps enquiring about certain players, so I imagine in the Netherlands there will be even more interest. But we have to stay focused on the task in hand. If we do that well, the rest will come in due course.
You turn 20 on 27. Did you know that if you are still in the Netherlands on that date, Chile will have reached the semi-finals?
No, I hadn't realised that. What a birthday present that would be! Hopefully I can get the goals that will prolong our stay in the tournament and celebrate it over there. That would mean that we'd done Chilean football proud.