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  • Friday, July 7, 2000

    The sky's the limit!

    By SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

     The Gold Cup is one thing.

     The World Cup is an entirely different matter.

     Canada reached a new level of soccer superiority when the national team manufactured its stunning verdict at the Gold Cup tournament back in February. It was arguably the greatest moment in the nation's miniscule soccer archives, but there remains plenty of room for even more notable accomplishments - primarily qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

     Mark Watson knows that reaching the grand stage of international football would literally mean the world to the Canadian game. The next step of that lengthy process is next Sunday's matchup at Commonwealth Stadium when group qualifying begins against Trinidad and Tobago.

     "We know that if we apply ourselves properly and stick together as a team, we have what it takes to get there," said Watson yesterday during a visit to Edmonton.

     "It's down to us. If we want to do it, we'll be right there at the end whereas before we always thought it was going to be a real uphill battle and we'd need a minor miracle."

     STRONGER COMMITMENT

     The 29-year-old defender from Vancouver, who has 58 international caps for Canada, can pinpoint the reason behind the national team's surging reputation and a 15-game unbeaten streak. There are little things like a much stronger commitment to defensive play and a punchy counter-attack combined with the development of rising young talents. But essentially the turnaround is credited solely to the inner strength of each player.

     "Our confidence is growing all the time, and that's such an important thing, especially going into World Cup qualifying," said Watson, who is likely to see plenty of T&T super-striker Dwight Yorke in the home-and-home encounters.

     It won't be a walk in the park for the No. 55-ranked Canadians to claim one of two advancing positions from the pool. The squad should pick up two wins against Panama, but Trinidad and Tobago - seeded 37th - presents itself as stiff opposition, as does No. 13 Mexico.

     Canada, however, is among the hottest teams in the world, leaping up 26 spots in the FIFA rankings so far this year.

     It's all about the confidence.

     "There's a saying that goes, 'It takes 15 years to become an overnight success,' '' chuckled Watson.

     "That's partially the case, but to me the big difference about this team from previous teams is the team spirit we have. I think it's so key for Canadian teams especially because we're not a rich soccer nation and the most important thing for our team to be successful is that we have 11 players playing for the team.

     "We can't afford to have any individuals out there. That is disastrous for us. With this team, we're all working together and there's a very good team unity out there."

     And thanks to their thrilling Gold Cup victories over Mexico, Colombia and the draw against T&T, the players have become an even closer-knit bunch.

     Winning just has a way of doing that.

     "The Canadian teams have always felt a little bit inferior to some other countries," recalled Watson, who rejoins the national team after missing the last qualifying series against Cuba due to injury.

     "Not feeling up to par to those countries, more often than not we'd go on the field thinking we've got to keep this game close or really play the game of our lives to win. This team is starting to get some confidence and that's a very important thing in soccer. If you don't have it, it's so hard to get it."

     HOLD TIGHT

     Now that they've managed to latch onto it, the mission is to hold on tight and maintain that power.

     *Watson will join his mates in southern Ontario Tuesday to prepare for the upcoming match, but in the meantime he may jet off to England to secure work for the next club season. He's been offered a three-year deal to return to English Second Division side Oxford, but there are a few major points to be resolved. Reserve 'keepers Lars Hirschfeld of Edmonton and Mike Franks along with forward Carlo Corazzin are all currently unattached. Jim Brennan and Dwayne De Rosario also rejoin the side after missing the set with Cuba.

     *Alberta Soccer Association boss Gary Sampley expects a crowd of around 15,000 next Sunday. "We only had a short time to prepare, not knowing if Canada would be here until they tied Cuba on June 11 in Winnipeg. We didn't have a preset expectation, but I don't think it will be a bad crowd," said Sampley.

     *Germany awarded 2006 World Cup



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