The shadows from some of soccer’s greatest players loom large over the Festival International Espoirs.
Icons such as Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo cut their teeth in the international game at the Festival, better known as the Toulon Tournament, playing for their countries before going on to bigger and better things ever since the annual youth competition in France was first held in 1967.
Who might emerge from this year’s Toulon Tournament as soccer’s next big star? It’s too early to tell, as the 12-nation competition only kicked off on Saturday, and the group stage has yet to be completed.
However, there have been a few surprising results thus far, including Canada’s 0-0 draw against Portugal on Tuesday at Stade Jules Ladoumegue in Vitrolles, a small commune in southern France.
Portugal is fielding an under-19 side at this year’s Toulon Tournament, featuring players who are on the books at some prominent European clubs, including West Ham United midfielder Domingos Quina and Benfica forward Mesaque Dju.
Canada, led by senior team coach John Herdman, is using its under-21 team, a side comprised mostly of youth players from Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Among those who played against Portugal were the Impact’s Shamit Shome, Julian Dunn from TFC and David Norman Jr. of the Whitecaps.
Portugal’s under-19 team entered this year’s competition on a major hot streak, having won seven consecutive matches dating back to last November. Drawing one of the top European nations is a major coup for this Canadian youth team, but Herdman admitted he wasn’t pleased with the result. In fact, he was disappointed.
“I think we should have won the game. Speaking to the boys afterwards, they were let down [because] we had more chances than Portugal. We’re trying to change the mindset of this group. It was a good result, but our mindset is accepting that that’s not OK anymore, and I think that was reflected in our performance by the end of the game,” Herdman told Sportsnet over the phone from France.
Part of Herdman’s frustration was born out of the fact that the Canadian players adopted well to the high pressing system he deployed against Portugal, but that they weren’t rewarded for their efforts with three points and had to settle for a draw.
“Previous Canadian teams might have bunkered down defensively and been happy with that result. But coming out of it with a draw, you could see the disappointment in the players and the staff after the game. There was a frustration because this group has been clear in what it wants to do at this tournament, which is spark something new within Canadian soccer,” Herdman explained.
The three group winners at the Toulon Tournament, along with the best second-place team overall, advance to the semifinals. Turkey leads Group C with three points, having defeated Japan 2-1. Canada and Portugal are tied for second with a point apiece.
Canada plays Turkey on May 31 in Vitrolles and wraps up the group stage against Japan on June 3 in Fos-sur-Mer.
The Reds are competing at the Toulon Tournament for the very first time, and Herdman would love nothing more than to see his team qualify for the next round.
Beyond that, he views this competition in France as a golden opportunity to give young Canadian prospects some valuable experience and a taste of international soccer.
“Some of these guys in a year or two, or maybe in a few months, could play with the senior team. I want to make sure every player only has to come into our national team set-up thinking only about their performance, and not have to worry about anything else. That’s the purpose of exposing these players to what playing for the senior team will be like,” Herdman explained.
Needless to say, not everybody on this youth team will go on to play for their country. To that end, Herdman said he wants to push this group of players beyond their potential as he assesses which of them has the best chance to eventually graduate to the senior team.
“It’s a great assessment opportunity about the competency of the players at this stage both mentally and tactically, while putting them under great scrutiny. It helps us look at them in term of down the road for things like the [CONACAF] Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying,” Herdman stated.
NOTE: During my conversation with John Herdman, he talked about the possibility of recalling veteran midfielder Will Johnson, who last played for the national team on June 13, 2017 under former coach Octavio Zambrano. I also recently spoke to Johnson about his thoughts on playing for Canada again. Look for that story later this week on Sportsnet.ca.