Thrown in at the deep end against South American giants Brazil in their first match, brave Canada have been punching well above their weight ever since. Taking pride in their underdog tag, the hard-fighting Canucks are the Cinderella side of the finals – reaching the Last Eight thanks to a cracker of a goal from midfielder Josh Simpson against Burkina Faso in Abu Dhabi on 8 December. And now as the unlikely side get set to keep the dream alive against European royals Spain, caught up with their goal hero for a look at the finals, backward and forward.

11:23 am: Spanish players lounge around the team hotel in Abu Dhabi. Taking photos, posing in regional garb and massing for a casual sightseeing trip, they look a cool lot indeed. Conspicuously though, nowhere in the bustling lobby is to be found a maple leaf. Instead, off in a dimly lit room the upstarts huddle around a monitor intently watching the vaunted European Champions in action.

The Spaniards - loaded with budding superstars - have not conceded a goal since their first match with Argentina and are among the hot favourites to take the laurels here at UAE 2003.

And when Simpson finally emerges with his mates, he shakes his head a bit at what he’s just seen. Sinking into a sofa cushion he begins a surprisingly detailed analysis – picking out possible stumbling blocks and weaknesses in the Spanish team.

‘Oh my god, we’re about to play Brazil!’
“We don’t feel intimidated at all,” the affable left-sided midfielder says. “At the start of the tournament we were a different team than the one we’ve become. We’ve grown a lot.”

Only 30 minutes away from getting a result against Brazil in their opener, and just letting a 1-0 lead slip against Australia before beating the Czechs in their third match, the Canadians have without question been on the up.

“We came in thinking ‘oh my god, we’re about to play Brazil!’ he laughs. “But by the time we met the Czechs we had all the fear out of our system. We said to ourselves, ‘either we’re going to play and get on with it, or we’re just going to lose and go home like the rest of our teams have done in the past.’”

All smiles for Simpson
And get on with it, the brave North Americans surely did. In minute 59 of their Round of Sixteen match with West African sensation Burkina Faso, Simpson found himself at the left-hand corner of the penalty area with only one thought in his head – having a crack. The wonder-strike to the top corner had the Canadian reserves bouncing off the bench as a raucous celebration ensued. At the bottom of the pile, was University of Portland Junior Simpson.

That was definitely the goal of my career,” he smiles. “It felt perfect. You know all the times when you’re sitting there after practice with the sun going down taking shot after shot thinking ‘why am I doing this?’ Well, I guess that’s the reason right there. The last two days I’ve just been smiling every time I think about it. I can’t get it out of my head.”

But after grinding out the win and settling in for a night of sleep, the realization that their next test would be against no less than Spain slowly began to sink in. And after only a cursory glance at the head-to-head squad lists, the differences between the two sides become obvious. Where Spain’s young stars play for clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia and Deportivo, some of the Canadians suffer a bit by comparison. With six players still in University, others turning out for clubs at various levels back home and in England, and one even plying his trade in Poland, the Canadians know full-well the difference.

Canuck Spirit against European aristocracySimpson laughs when asked about the discrepancy. “You’ve got these guys playing at these giant clubs and yet we are still here. You know, I sit here and dream about playing for Barcelona, like ‘wow, I wish one day I could play there.’ But I come here and I’m playing against guys that actually do. We’re still here with them in the Last 8. We’re playing with these guys. It’s like living a dream. But I don’t think that anyone is scared anymore…I mean I know that we can do it…”

The midfielder likes to look more to the fabled “Canuck Spirit” than the odds stacked up against him. “We’ve done really well at getting over the nerves and accepting the fact that we are going to be the underdog...We’re just trying to do the best we can at just tackling hard and fighting and never giving a team too much respect.”

“We give everything we have,” he says. “And all we want to do is demand some respect from some of these teams. Everybody fights for each other in our team. We’ve grown up hearing we are underdogs, underdogs, underdogs…a lot of times we feed off of it. If we win, we make history, if we lose, so what? The Canuck style is about having a big heart.”