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Women's U17 event kicks off World Cup year

Sunday, March 16, 2014

BRAZIL - It's true. We are fewer than 100 days away from the FIFA World Cup.

Brazil 2014 will be the highlight of the soccer calendar and, for many, the defining sports event of the year.

But it is not the only World Cup on the horizon. In fact, there are a total of three World Cups in 2014 — all of them in the Americas — including one on Canada's own doorstep come August.

As Neymar, Messi, Ronaldo et al gather in South America, Brazil will rightly hog the lion's share of the global spotlight. The other tournaments cannot compete in terms of star power but they are not without their own merits.

The first World Cup of 2014 is primed to launch. The FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, staged every two years, kicks off its fourth edition today, with Canada playing Germany in opening game.

The 16-nation tournament takes place in the heat and humidity of Costa Rica — the first time the Central American Republic has hosted a FIFA event.

Why should we care? There are no household names and the players' technical ability is still evolving. If they stay in the game, and it's a big "if," the peaks of their careers are years away. It begs the question — should FIFA have even introduced a World Cup for this age group in 2008? The answer — for the good of the game, as FIFA likes to say — is unquestionably "yes."

North Korea the favourite

The U-17 Women's World Cup is a stepping stone. It is a learning process which cannot be simulated by simply staying at home. For the players it is part of the education process — learning the true meaning of international soccer, competing in alien environments against the best of the best in one's age group.

By definition, tournament soccer is an unforgiving taskmaster. The champion in Costa Rica may not win every game, but it will have played six matches in equatorial conditions in the space of 20 days. Match fitness, recovery, plus physical and mental fatigue must all be managed professionally even though we will be watching amateur teenagers.

Those who succeed are a reflection of their national youth programs. A glance at the history books shows where the time and money invested is producing tangible results. Forget Europe or South America — at this level Asia has quickly established itself as a dominant force.

Since its inception, every U-17 Women's World Cup final has featured at least one Asian country. And whatever we may think about the politics of a dictatorship, the facts are undeniable: North Korea is hands down the team to beat. The inaugural 2008 champion was a semifinalist in 2010 and runner-up to France in 2012.

Its neighbour has also tasted glory. South Korea lifted the trophy in 2010, edging out Japan for the gold medal only after a dramatic penalty shootout. The Japanese and North Koreans are back for more in 2014, with China completing the Asian representation.

Canada draws tough group

The Europeans are closing the gap. Germany — twice a U-17 semifinalist — has long been regarded as one of the pioneers of the women's game and arrives as the reigning European champion. Spain is also making significant headway and handed the Germans a heavy beating in the qualifying group stages before ultimately losing the final on penalties.

France, the 2012 champion, did not qualify this time around.

By contrast, North America is struggling to keep pace. The United States is the No. 1 nation in women's soccer, but apparently the Americans are late bloomers. For the second time they have failed to qualify for the U-17 Women's World Cup and stumbled in the group stage in 2010.

Canada's record is impressive by comparison. It has qualified for every edition of the tournament and has twice reached the quarter-finals. Most recently, in 2012, the Canadians reached the knockout phase only to lose narrowly to the powerful North Koreans.

In Costa Rica the chances will be fewer and farther between. So then, the first of three FIFA World Cups in the space of five months. A long, hot summer of soccer lies ahead. What's not to love?

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