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    CHRONO SPORTS

  • Tuesday, June 13, 2000

    Alive and kickin'

    Soccer gets boot in right direction

    By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

     It's fly-by-night. It's last-minute. It's hit-and-miss. And it's half-baked.

     But it's a beginning.

     They're finally making an attempt at grabbing a clue, the formerly clueless "organizers'' of international soccer events here. Finally they have created an actual organizing committee.

     They haven't given John Gill much time. But they've given him the soccer ball and told him to round up some guys to run with it.

     Canada (ranked 54th in the world) desperately needs a gate to pay for World Cup qualifying expenses and has only one shot to get it - here, July 16, Canada vs. Trinidad & Tobago (No. 34).

     It's the first game of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, and it's not like they don't have something to sell.

     Holger's Heroes have found a following after their shocking success in winning the Gold Cup in California earlier this year. This is a rematch against the team they beat to make it to that final. And this is a chance for a Canadian crowd to pay them off with a flag-waving show of support for a team now riding a 15-game unbeaten streak.

     It's also a chance to watch last year's player of the year in the English Premiership, Manchester United's Dwight Yorke.

     Because of Edmonton 2001, this will be Canada's only match in a stadium where they can draw more than 9,000 between now and the end of the Worlds.

     The Canadian Soccer Association confirmed yesterday the home game against Mexico (No. 8) will be staged Nov. 15 at Toronto's Varsity Stadium, while the match against No. 119 Panama is slated for Oct. 9 at Winnipeg.

     "My initial reaction was panic,'' said Gill, a lawyer with McCuaig Desrochers, of receiving the phone call to head an organizing committee just over a week ago instead of, oh, back at the end of the Canada Cup. That was when coach Holger Osieck made it quite clear he'd rather play in small, full stadiums than in a monster stadium with crowds of 5,821, 8,865 and 10,026 like last year's Canada Cup here involving Guatemala, Iran and Ecuador.

     "I believe this is a perfect kind of event for Edmonton, and that it can still be a success even in the time frame we're dealing with here," said Gill who insists that, unlike all the other soccer events here in the past, this one will have a legacy. "It's what we hope to be the beginning of the creation of a corporate and individual fan base which will be able to be transformed into something resembling the season-ticket base of pro teams.

     "Every time we get a game, we should be able to quickly count on selling 10,000 to 20,000 tickets. The problem has been always starting with zero. And I figured out fast we were starting with zero."

     Without that base, the crowds have ranged from 27,775 (Australia '93) to 51,937 (Brazil '94), 12,112 (Northern Ireland, '95), 17,047 (Chile '95), 9,402 (Panama, '96), 6,046 and 10,122 (Cuba '96), 10,150 (Costa Rica '97) and 11,806 (Mexico '97).

     Gill admits to being dumbfounded when he looked at his lack of resources from previous events.

     "It has to be much, much more professional and more organized."

     Gill, if he can put together a success here, would like to put together an Edmonton Eskimos-style of board of directors for future events - and do it not just with soccer people, but the same kind of community-conscious people the football team attracts.

     "We need more exposure to fans of other sports. Why just try to sell it to soccer fans? These international soccer games are perfect events for Edmonton. Our city loves big sports events, especially world-class international events. Edmonton loves to volunteer and take part. We have to get the Edmonton business community involved. They realize these events are great for our city. We have to make them part of international soccer here in the future."

     They're not going to be able to tap into the corporate community to any great extent for this event.

     For this game there will be an earlybird $19 top-end ticket price ($25 after July 1) and earlybird shoulder-seat price of $14 ($19 after July 1). There will be a $20 discount for all minor soccer teams of 15 or more and a very aggressive attempt to get the kids out to help make this something of a homecoming for Holger's Heroes.

     Gill says they are flat-out stealing the Eskimos' back-to-school promotion by giving vouchers to players aged 10 and under, hoping they'll bring along a paying parent.

     "We really are throwing this together on the fly. But we are doing it as an organizing committee and I hope we can get the job done to make it the beginning of a standing organizing committee. I think it's important for Edmonton that we succeed with this game and move on to make it happen.''

     Forget Edmonton. Try Canada.

     "It's absolutely crucial for our World Cup qualifying program that this be a major success,'' said Jim Fleming, the Edmonton-based, recently re-elected president who hired Osieck to turn the program around.

     Holger's Heroes deserve support in terms of numbers, volume and dollars. Something special might be happening here, like the last time Fleming was president - the only time Canada made it to the World Cup.



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