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Victoria Site Organising Committee: Chris VG, Apr. 9, 2006

FIFA's concerns to be addressed in good time

FIFA came, FIFA saw, FIFA left in positive spirits and at this early stage on the road to 2007, that was good news for the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and the Victoria Site Organising Committee (Victoria SOC)

A small yet most influential delegation from FIFA arrived in Victoria April 5 to review sites and plans for the 2007 u20 World Cup, including the centrepiece, Centennial Stadium. The UVic campus facility was the first stop on a trail that would take the FIFA delegation coast to coast appraising Canada's readiness for the second-largest football tournament on the planet. The undeniable truth is that FIFA Vice President and CONCACAF President, Jack Warner, will have many reservations as he tours the six host cities – all of which have a great deal of work ahead of them. But it was also apparent that Warner and FIFA entourage including Walter Sieber, Communications, Marion Mayer-Vorfelder, Manager of Senior Events and u20 World Cup Media man John Schumacher, were delighted with the reception in the province's capital, delighted with the weather, the amiable locals, the professionalism of CSA and Victoria SOC members, and were optimistic upon departure that Victoria would meet or exceed expectations.

You never get a second chance to....
"We have seen what we wanted to see," declared a positive Sieber to a closed-door reception of FIFA, CSA, Victoria SOC and associated delegates. Adding with whimsy, "Maybe we have seen too much!" in reference to the magical mystery bus tour of Victoria earlier that day. A tour that took Sieber and company to four field locations, scenic locales and residential back-roads, lunch at UVic and eventually back to the Grand Pacific Hotel at the Inner Harbour.

The Grand was a prudent choice for a delegation that included some of the most powerful people in the game. FIFA generally doesn't 'rough it' and they're also not accustomed to awarding matches to locations that have almost no apparent football culture. Although a million play the game coast-coast football does not simply ooze out of soccer-specific stadiums, fan-filled pubs, kids in streets kicking anything that rolls. Our stadiums are not soccer-specific and our stadiums are generally not up to snuff. The notion that Warner and Sieber would be easily impressed was not at all one to bank on. The idea that we could make them comfortable in a beautiful city, show them our modest successes to-date (Hearts, Sunderland, Netherlands) and what is possible before July 2007 and be well-received for it, was bankable. And so for the thriftier-minded suggesting the CSA shouldn't be schmoozing with so little dollars, the comforts of the Grand Pacific was money well spent. As Pedro Coley, FIFA Accommodations, described with much relief in the lobby, Warner was delighted with his personal accommodations and when he's happy in his room he's positive in spirit for days. For the CSA and Victoria SOC Chair and maestro Harold McNeill, the first hurdle was crossed with negligible hiccups.

For McNeill much was on the line during this FIFA site inspection of Victoria. The trailblazer's crew of a dozen vice-chairs and their aides have been dreaming and slogging and preparing for this for months, or more appropriately, preparing this Island for the biggest single-sport event ever to come to these fair shores. The CSA's COO, Kevan Pipe was duly impressed with the work to-date by Victoria SOC, suggesting preparations here may be months ahead of other Canadian venues. Although Victoria's pubs and stadiums didn't necessarily ooze football before Warner's eyes, McNeill tireless crew, and the facility managers he met along the way, did. "We were blown away by the hospitality," exclaimed Mayer-Vorfelder to the CSA delegates following her travels.

Thelma, Louise, Sharpe, Pipe, Warner...
Gray Line provided the wheels and the way, and by 11am, April 5, Warner left the comforts of his room ("I can do everything here, ' paraphrased Coley) and set upon the streets of Victoria enroute to the first field of inspection. The site of internationals in 2004 and 2005, Royal Athletic Park (RAP) was offered and accepted as a suitable training facility for 2007's teams. As with all such facilities FIFA's crew were concerned with security, segregated access and fencing between training fields. All concerns seem well within the scope of RAP development. "RAP... No problem," was Sieber's last word on the wee stadium that could.

FIFA and company including soon-to-retire CSA President Andy Sharpe, u20 Event Director Peter Montopoli and Communications Director Earl Cochrane, were all onboard for the next leg of the tour, and joined Warner and other Victoria SOC chairs for scenic stops here and there before heading to Centennial Stadium - the primary concern of most FIFA delegates."For me personally, the most important point is the temporary seating," said a concerned Sieber, adding, "FIFA does not in principal accept temporary seats."

FIFA would prefer to see a stadium with 25,000 fixed seats but as Sieber suggested, "We are extremely open-minded." Sieber would like to see the CSA draw up a model for 25,000 but FIFA will settle on a minimum 10,000 seats at Centennial by kick-off 2007. Pipe comforted FIFA with the knowledge that the CSA "have total flexibility in how we want to build" and Sharpe, who remains the man who set the u20 ball rolling, assured Sieber and company that, "We will have everything in place to your satisfaction." Fulfilling that promise will require approximately 7,000 temporary seats and Edmontonian William Cameron of Grandstands Canada was onsite and in the boardroom confirming such development was safe. "Centennial meets or exceeds building code for temporary seating," he assured Sieber.

Does it take batteries!
All delegates at the post-inspection roundtable were amused if not embarrassed by Sieber's wittier observations regarding Centennial's clunky old scoreboard. "Please, I think you do understand, it should be electric not manual," he insisted, noting that the current offering "sets us back 40 years!" Sieber would like to see a clock, counting up the minutes, the team names and of course, the score, but he doesn't want to see little men running around behind those numbers. It's understandable, and fortunately another small hurdle Victoria can overcome.

Harder to offset is a stadium with almost no grandstand facilities and Sieber did note surprise, "It is unusual for us not to have the facilities beneath the stadium." Despite the early disappointment at the Centennial inspection, stadium, UVic, CSA and Victoria SOC delegates were able to redraw the map with FIFA's crew, and concerns including media access, fan exclusion, team separation etc, were all being dealt with in theory and principle. And FIFA, despite their enormity, did appreciate the little things, such as a poster size rendition of the future stadium upgrades.

Warner woos the masses
By the time local media arrived on Centennial's track the FIFA outlook was certainly positive and a personable Warner addressed TV and newspaper crews with optimism for the games ahead, gratitude for Victoria's hospitality on this day, and much joy at being back on the Island. His recent troubles that have hugged the global headlines are a largely a non-issue in Canada, and it's here the Trinidad and Tobago native can relax somewhat and focus on the game plan, not the politics of his wealth or business influence. Warner enjoys Victoria and it's people and no doubt, the Island was a wise choice for the start of FIFA's rollercoaster trip across Canada.
Warner's travels on the day ended at Centennial while other delegates continued on the coach to appraise the turf at Finlayson before meeting Glen Davis and the Head Groundskeeper at the more impressive spread at Juan de Fuca Recreational Centre, which Sieber described as "a very good facility". Davis was on-hand to address security concerns and confirm the facility could be divided to create private training areas. All looks good, which is actually better than the "OK" rating Sieber afforded Centennial. The truth is, by FIFA standards, most of Canada will be hard-pressed to rate close to "OK". So again, McNeill, Pipe, Sharpe and clan may take comfort knowing in the eyes of FIFA, Victoria at least is off to a good start.

FIFA's visit concluded with another, larger semi-formal reception back at the Grand Pacific, where it all began with Victoria SOC Chairs McNeill, Don Monsour and Bill McCreadie wheeling and dealing, tweaking and primping and feverishly setting the stage long before Warner and crew first stepped off the plane into the Island sunshine. Victoria SOC Communications Chair Keith Dagg spent the afternoon chasing FIFA's mystery tour bus and arranging attendance of both media and many influential players including Alan Lowe, Mayor of Victoria and the Honourable Gordon Campbell, Premier of BC, both of whom were in talkative spirits and eager to recognise the tremendous value of hosting the 2007 u20 World Cup. It was an easy-going, positive affair and provided some memorable moments, certainly upon the return to the microphone of Warner, who wasted no time dishing out as much whimsy as gratitude including his "craddle to grave" theory of why football is so universally popular. To paraphrase... "You come into the world kicking, and at the end of it all you kick the bucket". The Honourable Olga Illich, Minister of Tourism, Sports & the Arts, would echo the "popularity" sentiment if not Warner's colourful improv, suggesting football's registered numbers have doubled hockey across Canada, and that the number of girls playing the beautiful game has also doubled in a surprisingly short time. Everything is looking up!

Warner is looking forward to 2007. He's not-so-quietly hoping that the USA and England get drawn into the group playing on the Island. Seattle's geographic proximity is a bonus for Victoria tourism, and in the case of England, Warner will possibly be looking for retribution for the thrashing T&T will receive at the hands of England in Germany come July 2006 (both are drawn into Group B). Most likely he just wants to see everyone's second-favourite national club playing in the best possible location. And what better place than Vancouver Island, British Columbia, home of sun and surf and seals, whales and great, big birds, mountains and rivers from shore to shore, football clubs from end to end, and this time next year Mr. Sieber, one of those new-fangled electronic scoreboards you're so fond of!

To view a photo gallery of the FIFA site inspection please click here.

ARTICLE: ©2006 Victoria SOC/Chris Vaughan Griffiths

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