12 December 2003: a sad day for CONCACAF football, or a stepping-stone for the typically overshadowed region? According to U.S. coach Thomas Rongen, Canada boss Dale Mitchell and a few of the brighter-burning stars from both sides, UAE 2003’s two bitter-sweet quarter-finals in Abu Dhabi were a little bit of both.

After the Canucks and their southern neighbours trudged off the pitch in tears following dramatic golden-goal decisions to two of the world’s most significant and time-tested footballing powers, there must surely be reason to take heart.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” said Canada’s Mitchell after watching Iain Hume race back and fire an equalising blast to Spanish creator Iniesta’s opener in Abu Dhabi. “But we had many tears in the changing room, because we felt we could have gone farther.”

As all looked to be lost early on, the combative and scrappy young side from the Great White North hauled themselves back into a match no one figured they had the even the slimmest hopes of winning. And after Vitolo’s sending off saw Spain reduced to ten, the Canadians suddenly looked in the driver’s seat.

“I can’t believe we lost”
Tough-as-nails till the end, the first Canuck side ever to reach a FIFA quarter-finals are looking to the future with every bit of justified optimism they can muster through the hurt. And with the likes of striker Hume, cultured midfielder Josh Simpson, and outstanding goalkeeper Alim Karim coming through the ranks, why should they not?

“I believe this team took a big step and these players will go on to bigger things,” Mitchell added. “At the end of the day, the experience they’ve got here is amazing…they’ve learned a great many lessons.”

impson - Canada’s goal hero from the landmark Round of Sixteen match with Burkina Faso – could not have been more pleased with his mates, or more incredulous with the loss to Europe’s finest youth side.

“I just can’t believe we lost,” the affable speed merchant told FIFA.com. “We were a man up, we had a crack off the post. We were getting forward, we were getting shots on goal. Spain are a good team but I think they got lucky. I think we should have won. There wasn’t a point in the game I thought we were going to lose.”

“We’ve done the best any Canadian team’s done and for that I am thrilled. The team is just great,” he continued. “We came together in a big way and really made something happen from nothing. I think we have won something for Canada…We did our best.”

Good neighbours
After picking themselves up off the floor following Arizmendi’s 95th minute winner, the Canucks – in their bright red tracksuits – headed up to the stands to cheer on their southern neighbours in a similarly improbable quarter-final clash with holders and hot favourites Argentina.

And when the Spanish referee blew a penalty for Argentina in extra time, they were up with arms outstretched in protest. Not long after Fernando Cavenaghi hammered his penalty past Steve Cronin, it was the turn of the U.S. players to drag themselves out of the changing room to rue their tough luck and mull over what might have been.

You know what? There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Freddy Adu, who set up captain Bobby Convey as the U.S. took the lead just before the hour mark, only to see it snuffed out with 15 seconds to go in stoppage time courtesy of a flicked header from Javier Mascherano. But at just 14 years of age, Adu must be considered one of the great shining lights for the States’ hopeful future. “We lost, but we gave them a real run for their money,” he went on. “They had to score a goal in the 94th minute to beat us. That just shows that when we play our game, we can play with the rest of the world.”

U.S. U-20 captain, Olympic squad member and full senior international Convey also sees the steps taken in the UAE as a positive for the nation’s football. “I am proud to be the captain of this team. Everyone worked hard and we stayed toe-to-toe with the best team in the world. No one thought we were going to do that. But we knew that we could…I think this is a big stepping-stone for the U.S. Now we just have to build on this success and keep it going in the Olympics in Athens…and keep achieving with the full national team.”

A cruel game
“Many times it’s a beautiful game, but it can be a cruel game as well,” mused U.S. boss and Olympic team assistant coach Thomas Rongen. “But we’ve shown to ourselves and the rest of the world, that we can play with the best. We as Americans are beginning to earn a lot more respect. Our senior team had a great performance in Korea in 2002 and our under-20s had a wonderful year. We are no longer just the underdogs anymore. We believe in our ability and our confidence is going up and up.”

“You can look at it two ways,” he added. “You can say it was a very sad day, or you could also say that it was a very joyous day for CONCACAF. We played in the round of 8 against Spain and Argentina and we both gave fine account of ourselves. We’ve both shown that we can keep up with the world’s best teams. Of course we would have both loved to take one more step…but we have nothing to be ashamed of.”