Awarding the first ever women's under 19 world championship to Canada, a country more renowned for its proficiency in ice hockey than football, might have raised eyebrows around the world but upon closer examination the decision is brilliant.
There are more registered footballers in Canada than ice hockey players making it the most popular participation sport in the country. Of course there aren't too many hockey administrators willing to admit this fact. Even more significant is the fact that thirty-eight per cent of all these footballers are female. Clearly women's football enjoys great respect on these shores.
Organisers of the twelve team tournament, which runs from August 17th to September 1st, including the Canadian Soccer Association's Chief Operating Officer, Kevan Pipe, and its past President, Jim Fleming, have had a clear vision from the beginning. Rather than schedule the tournament in one of Canada's two largest cities, Toronto and Montreal, where it might be swallowed by a glut of North American professional sports, they have chosen three western cities where football enjoys widespread popularity and which have proven records of sporting hospitality.
Indeed each of the venues is a natural setting for the game. Victoria is the picturesque capital of the province of British Columbia and is located on Vancouver Island. In 1994 this city of 326,000 hosted the Commonwealth Games and it is also home of the highly acclaimed University of Victoria men's and women's football teams.
Across the bay on the mainland is nearby Vancouver, a true multicultural city of almost two million people and widely recognised as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Finally the city of Edmonton, capital of Alberta, with its population of almost one million people is known as the City of Champions. Both semi-final matches as well as the final will be played here in Commonwealth Stadium and so to will all Group A matches.
Commonwealth Stadium has hosted many important international events including the 1978 Commonwealth Games, the 1983 World Student Games and last summer's highly successful 8th World Championships in Athletics. All three events have earned Edmontonians an enviable reputation for staging important events.
From a football perspective Commonwealth Stadium was the site of an historic moment in Canadian football. It was here, before the largest crowd ever to witness an international soccer match in the country, that Canada earned a 1-1 draw against Brazil in a pre-world cup friendly in 1994. Such was the resulting euphoria that the scorer of the Canadian goal, Eddie Berdusco, has recreated that magic moment at sports celebrity dinners across the country many times since.
Organisers have been busy marketing the women's U-19 tournament with encouraging results. The majority of the matches will be televised on SportsNet, one of the two national sports television networks.
The biggest boost has been in the area of ticket sales. By early May all 40,000 passes, which allow access to all matches staged at Commonwealth Stadium, had been sold through youth soccer associations. Several thousand more were sold through a licensed ticket agent to people in both the United States and other parts of Canada.
"The biggest challenge, I think, was getting people to believe we could sell this number of tickets. " says Paul Kuin, Venue Coordinator for the Commonwealth Stadium, "The local media has been supportive and Mayor Bill Smith has too. Now the city is really behind the tournament."
Kuin says the city's reputation for outstanding volunteerism is intact. A call for volunteers resulted in more than one thousand people, men and women, boys and girls stepping forward to help in a variety of tasks: opening ceremonies, flag bearers, ball girls and team hosts among them. The opening and closing ceremonies are expected to be truly magnificent in their own right.
The other venues are much smaller, more intimate but no less exciting to play in. Centennial Stadium in Victoria has 7,000 seats while Vancouver's Swangard Stadium can seat 8,000. They will be close to capacity particularly since many Canadian team members play locally.
For many years Swangard has been the home of Canada's premier football club, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and has also hosted many international matches including a friendly in 1986 between England and Canada. Many Canadians believe the awarding of the women's under 19 tournament is the first step in winning a men's world cup bid somewhere in the future. It will also do much for football in the country.