It may surprise you to learn that Julian de Guzman's initial sporting passion was basketball, not football. However, by early adolescence a lack of height was already hampering his progress, so his astute father convinced him to switch to the beautiful game where his feet could do the talking. It proved an inspired decision as today De Guzman is one of the up-and-coming stars of Canadian football.
Born in Toronto to a Philippino father and Jamaican mother, de Guzman now plays play his football for Deportivo la Coruna in Spain's North-West. With younger brother Jonathan playing professionally in the Netherlands, it is quite the multicultural family. De Guzman is also something of globetrotter, having enjoyed spells in the French and German leagues before pitching up in Spain. "I've learned a lot from these changes of scene. They're each very different countries with their own brand of football. Coming in contact with different customs has made me a more rounded individual, both on and off the pitch," he tells FIFA.com.
After three seasons with Depor, he remains the only Canadian to have graced La Liga. "People find it hard to believe all right. It would be like a Spaniard playing hockey in Canada. It's great though, and I'm very proud. After all, this is one of the top leagues in the world. The attitude of the people here and their lifestyle is helping me become a more relaxed and happier person."
For his part, brother Jonathan plies his trade with Feyenoord and has opted to defend the colours of his adopted Netherlands at the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. "For now, he's very focused on the Netherlands, but he could still change his mind in the future as to who he'd like to play senior football for. I'll support him whether he opts for Canada or the Netherlands. What matters most is that he's doing very well. It's a pity I can't make it to Beijing to watch him, but I'll be following his progress on TV," the elder sibling says proudly.
Focusing on South Africa 2010
With domestic duties finished for another season, the midfielder's focus has now turned to international affairs and the upcoming challenges facing Canada. The first hurdle for the Canucks as they embark on the long road towards the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa is their 15 June showdown with St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
"The first match is always crucial. We can't take this game lightly as it's a straight knockout and so they'll be giving it everything they've got. Moreover, for many of their players, this will be a one-off opportunity to achieve a big result. So, yes, they could cause us problems," says the 27-year-old.
"Our main shortcoming is that we don't get to play as often as the other CONCACAF nations, so it's imperative we approach this game with a lot of focus and preparation," he adds. For all of that, the player capped 24 times for his country has high hopes for this current generation of Canadian internationals.
"It always has and always will be difficult to reach the finals of a World Cup. However, I believe the current Canada squad is one of the best we've ever had. We've got very experienced players who have earned their spurs in Europe. It's our best chance yet to take at least the third-place spot in CONCACAF," De Guzman said defiantly.
Should they manage it, they would match the feat of the famous 1986 side who gave the country their first and only taste of FIFA World Cup football by qualifying for that year's showpiece event in Mexico. That heroic qualification coupled with the Canucks' victory in the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup remain the high points to date for a country whose most popular sport is ice hockey.
The man charged with reprising past glories is new coach Dale Mitchell, who De Guzman knows from the FIFA World Youth Championship Argentina 2001, when he was assistant to Paul James. "He has a great understanding of footballers and is very close [to them]. He also has coaching experience and, while this may be a step up for him, we players have confidence in him. We also believe that when it comes to the qualifiers, his tactics and approach to the national team will make us the complete package."
Canadian football served notice of its newfound confidence at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, when the Canucks came very close to reaching the final. "We proved to ourselves and the rest of the world that we have a strong enough team to compete with Mexico and the USA. We continue to work very hard and will try to recapture that spirit for the World Cup qualifiers," says the man voted Canada's player of that tournament.
After a cautious start the team's confidence grew as the competition wore on, culminating in a very impressive run to the semi-finals. Indeed in their last-four game, they had the USA on the ropes before slipping to a disappointing 2-1 defeat. In spite of the result, de Guzman is keen to take some positives from the experience: "We have one of the best squads I can remember, and these players have enough quality to compete at a World Cup."
So what do the team need to do to take the next step? "Canada has a lot of talent but the entire burden rests on the shoulders of the players. We'll continue to battle on, but we need more support, better organisation and more investment," says the midfielder constructively. "If we make it to South Africa, then everyone will support us, but we really need it now to be more certain of getting there."
Few would argue that de Guzman is one of the players who inspires most confidence in the fans. In a recent poll on the English version of FIFA.com, the Canadian ranked among the CONCACAF's most-valued players. "It's an honour, because there are countless good players in the region. It's also an honour to be able to represent my country, and I hope to justify people's confidence in me by helping Canada shine in world football. Hopefully that will be by getting to the World Cup," he concludes.