Canada gets their FIFA U17 World Cup adventure underway on Saturday when they play hosts Brazil in Brasilia’s Estadio Bezerrao.
It’s a tough first Group A match for the Canadians before they face off against Angola on Tuesday and New Zealand on Friday in their first appearance in the finals since 2013.
On paper, that first match looks to be Canada’s biggest challenge. A fervent home crowd will pack into the 20,000 capacity stadium for the tournament’s opening game and the young Canadians will have to be at their very best from the start to keep a fired up Brazil side at bay.
After that things may get the easier, but the problem at this level is that so many teams are unknown quantities, with the African nations in particular pulling off a number of surprises over the years. That may make scouting a little bit difficult for head coach Andrew Olivieri and his team, but the players know they’ll be in for a tough ride no matter who they end up playing.
“We haven’t done too much film on them yet,” Whitecaps Academy right back Deylen Vellios admitted. “But obviously you’ve got Brazil, the hosts, a lot of eyes are going to be on them. Then you’ve got Angola, the champions of Africa. Then of course New Zealand, so that will be another tough task. Hopefully we’ll be ready for it.”.
That not fearing the unknown quantity message was also echoed by Vellios’ Whitecaps teammate, centre back Nathan Demian.
“Honestly, not a whole lot,” Demian said of his knowledge right now of Canada’s three group opponents. “I know that Brazil is a perennial powerhouse in the international game.
“We have a player here who does play for the New Zealand national team, so that also kind of gives us a little bit of a clue. Then Angola, [we know] not much about them. I know they have one player who is playing in the French first division. Besides that, not much else.”.
That Kiwi player is another Whitecaps prospect, Development Squad striker Thomas Raimbault, who has played for New Zealand’s U-17 and U-20 national teams in the 2001-born age groups.
And it’s testament to the talent that is coming through the Whitecaps Academy and development team rights now that they have so many players that have represented their countries at youth level.
Demian and Vellios are two of six Whitecaps players on Canada’s World Cup squad, along with Demian’s centre back partner Gianfranco Facchineri (who we profiled last week), midfielders Damiano Pecile and Emiliano Brienza, and forward Kamron Habibullah.
Demian, Facchineri, and Vellios are key parts of Canada’s defence. Their familiarity with each other at the back will hopefully help give Canada a bit more cohesion under pressure, especially that centre back partnership of Demian and Facchineri.
But just having so many club teammates around should help settle some nerves and help with squad chemistry all round.
“It’s great to have some of your brothers who you’ve grown up playing with – some of these guys I’ve been playing with since I’ve been 10-years-old,” Demian said of having familiar faces around in such a testing environment. “So it’s great that now, seven years on, we’re going to one of the biggest tournaments in the world together… It kind of gives a sense of familiarity when you go abroad, and especially when you’re playing with players who you’re not used to and very familiar with.
“I think after a while though, and after being with them now for about a year, you really get to know them and they become almost part of your Whitecaps family because you’re used to playing with them now and it’s almost the same. I definitely have some really close relationships here [in Vancouver] that I’ll be taking with me to Brazil. It’s great to also share those experiences, and we can look back and say ‘oh look at what we have done together and look at all the great things that we have achieved’.”
The Whitecaps contingent is a good representative of modern day Canada. Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, and Uzbekistan, are all represented in the familial backgrounds of the six ‘Caps. It’s a diversity you’ll find across the length and breadth of the country.
“It’s a huge honour,” Demian said of representing Canada. “Having my family come over here from Egypt and now raise us here is great. I remember when I was 12-years-old I wrote a letter to my future self for an English project, and one of the things I wanted to achieve by the time I graduated high school was to represent Canada at the U-17 World Cup. So now it’s a huge honour and a huge privilege to be able to tick that box off of my life goals.”
For many it will be a once in a lifetime experience, but the memories and pride to represent their country on the world stage will certainly be a memory they won’t forget.
“It’s a tremendous honour for me, being born and raised in Canada and living here my entire life,” Vellios said. “It’s such an honour to represent my country.”
Vellios has already some taste of international opposition at club level as part of the Whitecaps Development squad that travelled to matches in Mexico and South Korea. It’s given him a taste of the challenges to expect and he feels that’s made him and his ‘Caps teammates all the more prepared for the World Cup road ahead.
“Going to all of those places was obviously an amazing experience,” Vellios said. “We got to play against older opposition, and you’ve just got to adapt on the fly learning all new things about yourself and about your teammates. You get to learn from all that.”
There’s no doubting that Canada are heading into this tournament as underdogs. Canada are only ranked sixth in CONCACAF at this level, never mind across the rest of the world.
Listen to the players though and they’ll have you believe nothing that they’re heading to Brazil with a winning mentality and a desire to do better than any Canadian team has done at any World Cup, whatever the level or gender.
“For me personally, I go into everything trying to win,” Demian said. “I don’t go in saying ‘oh a quarterfinal finish, a group stage finish is good enough’. No I want to win. I look at other teams and I don’t think anyone is better than us when we go there.
“Obviously [Canada] have not done the best in the past, but I truly believe that we can go there and make some big noise there, and make a big impact on the tournament, and show that Canada really is a soccer nation and is growing a lot.”