TORONTO - A Euro tournament packs a powerful punch, even an ocean away.
The bars are crowded. The audience is a colourful mix of hardcore (Opta stat freaks), casual (Italy bandana), whimsical (Viking horns), preoccupied (in-game texters) and frauds (Man United tops). Euro football is top-class and telegenic.
But much as we deny it, we're not just onlookers. We're part of this world too. Looking at it through Canadian eyes, you can't help but ask - why can't we play this game the same way, and get the same interest? Who can we learn from? And while we're going inquiring-minds, why would a grown man wear face paint?
[Slideshow: Canadian men's soccer team]
This week afforded a rare meeting of footballing bodies large and small: The solar glare of Euro 2012, eclipsed by Canada's latest batch of quadrennial World Cup hopefuls (at least on BMO Field's lakefront grass, observed by 16,000 or so, including some of those face-painted).
The Canadians are trying to finish in the top two of their four-team group and move on to the fourth, and final stage of regional qualifying next year against the likes of heavyweights Mexico and the United States, so the water is getting deeper. Out on the fields of Gdansk and Kiev is the deepest of pools, matched only by a World Cup finals Canada hasn't reached since 1986.
The 0-0 result, after a drab exhibition, seemed about right. Canada bossed Honduras, a team coming off a World Cup finals finals of their own. But for Canada, scoring is difficult. To take nothing away from their efforts or the preparation and planning of the players and coach Stephen Hart, they lack the quality these Euro bluebloods possess - well, except for Ireland, who've had a dismal week, absolutely pummeled by Croatia then outclassed by the world champions Spain.
[Dirty Tackle: Ireland's invisible day against Spain]
But it's Ireland who is the first case for emulation. Under legendary Italian coach Giovanni Trappatoni's rigid hand, they qualified for the world's best tournament. Sure, as soon as they crossed the border into Poland someone lit their hair on fire, and "El Trap" didn't have a plan B once they got there (a little while ago he was a football genius, now he's being pilloried - such is another truism about this deep water. Someone always drowns. Someone always walks the plank.). Still, in just getting to the tournament they showed the importance of organization
Poland provides another example. In the past they've failed to prevent native-born, dual-citizen players like Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose from playing for other nations - in those two cases, gallingly, for their bitter German rivals - and it's been a factor in preventing them developing a dynamic, youthful core. Now, with players like Borussia Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek and more still maturing, this is a team that's two or four years early, it looks like, and will be a must-watch for the next decade or so. So there's another model for a Canadian team - imagine this current group, augmented by the dynamism and creativity of a Junior Hoilett or Jonathan De Guzman, to name two who have eluded their net.
Then there's Denmark, who have for the past 20 years and will forever more dine out on their longshot run to the 1992 Euro title. According to my former colleague Toronto Star's Cathal Kelly, they are the Euros' version of Canada's global standing - the country no one really thinks one way or another about, "except to assume they're dull as dirt (which they are demonstrably not)." I don't know if I agree with him, but in the case of the Danes, they do always deliver and punch above their weight. They are a small nation (5.5 million) with a big footballing history (and bigger, an egomaniacal striker in outgoing Arsenal stumbler Nicklas Bendtner who is the current classic example of country-over-club player, and who scored the tournament's best goal in my books, his second against Portugal a master example of skill, power and placement).
[World Cup qualifying: Draw with Honduras isn't perfect for Canada, but it's not bad]
We can never punch with the Spains and the Germanys, for sure, and because of that a few of this little town's Eurosnobs will forever turn their noses up, as if to say, why even bother trying? Is it really worth it, to go to a big tournament and doing an Ireland, outscored and outclassed by a combined 7-1 scoreline in two games?
In Gdansk on Thursday night, tens of thousands of travelling Irish fans, some of them in hock for the trip to Poland, loudly and proudly sang their losing side into the dressing room.
There's your answer. There's your model.
follow Chris Young on Twitter @HighParkCy.
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