For Canada, the countdown to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is well and truly on. Yesterday saw the 100-day milestone marked by festivities and light shows as the nation builds towards this tournament and beyond to next year’s senior showpiece.
The excitement surrounding August's youth event is understandable. Canada has, after all, hosted the tournament once before, and it proved to be a triumph, with almost 48,000 turning out in 2002 to watch the hosts narrowly edged out by USA in the final.
That team spawned many of the national team’s greats – Christine Sinclair being the best-known – and it also proved a major landmark in the process of Canada fully embracing the beautiful game. Among those buoyed by the subsequent progress is Andrew Olivieri, a former international goalkeeper who these days takes charge of his country’s U-20 women’s side.
And while Olivieri knows that matching the achievements of Sinclair and Co will be a tall order, he’s sure that Canada, as hosts, are poised to better the party they threw 12 years ago. He said: “The Canadian football culture has changed significantly since 2002 - and in a good way. Back in 2002, this tournament wasn’t really on the radar until it got underway and the Canadian team started to really impress.
“It’s very different now. People are on board well in advance, and expectations have also risen significantly. The women’s team winning a bronze medal at the Olympics took the level of scrutiny and interest to another level, and we’re going to have to prepare the players to cope with that.
“I can already sense excitement rising in the country, although I’m not sure if the players do. Most of them are playing football at college in the US, so it’s only when they come into camp that they get a feeling for the way it’s building up. I don’t think it will be until June or July, when it’s just over the hill, that they appreciate just how fantastic and enormous this tournament is going to be.”
Winning a quarter-final match is an ambitious target for us, I think, but I also believe it’s achievable.
Another consequence of their role as hosts is that Canada are the only team of the 16 participating not to have been tested in a continental qualifying competition. That, as their coach admits, has posed its own challenges.
“We’ve missed out on games in a competition environment and those kind of games are very important, particularly for young players, so we’ve had to adapt,” he told FIFA.com. “What we’ve looked to do is arrange really tough, demanding friendly matches, playing against tougher opponents than we would have faced in qualifying.”
All the same, assessing Canada’s place among the likely contenders for the U-20 crown remains difficult, with uncertainty over the current squad’s strength not the only issue at stake. Also causing concern is the team’s poor record in this tournament since that final appearance in 2002, and this is factored into Olivieri’s pre-tournament target.
As he explained: “We haven’t been out of the group stage at this level since that tournament in 2002, so saying we expect to reach the semi-finals or final would be a little premature. Winning a quarter-final match is an ambitious target for us, I think, but I also believe it’s achievable.
“Our goal is not to win tournaments at this level; it’s to develop players for the senior team. But playing well, winning matches and going through the rounds at competitions like this will help us achieve that, so we know that one can come from the other.”
As part of Olivieri’s preparations, national team stalwart Rhian Wilkinson has been drafted in to help coach and prepare the players for the rigours of tournament football during their most recent training camp. The competition itself is certainly sure to offer the kind of test that only a World Cup can conjure, with the draw having pitted Canada against Ghana, Finland and Korea DPR in a varied and intriguing group.
“From a development perspective, it was a fantastic draw for us,” acknowledged Olivieri. “Playing against three such different teams from such distinct cultures of football will be a tremendous learning experience for our players. It just exposes them to different problems they’ll need to solve as their careers progress, and we’re extremely excited to be going in against such top-notch opposition.
“We’re all really looking forward to it. From the players’ perspective, the opportunity to play at home and hopefully do something special in front of their family and friends is a real incentive. But even as a staff we feel it’s a big step on the road towards 2015 and we want to make sure that - on and off the field - Canada makes a great impression.”