17 years later: How far CanMNT, Chile have come since 2007 U-20 World Cup meeting

All eyes are on the Canadian men’s national team this weekend as they prepare to take on Chile in their last Group A match at Copa América, with a very real chance to qualify for the knockout stage. It’s the first time Canada have found themselves with such an opportunity on the grand stage of a major tournament.

However, Saturday night won’t be the first time these two nations have clashed with high stakes. Most recently, of course, is the two countries’ women’s sides squaring off at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Group E, where Canada won 2-1 — and went on to win gold.

Before that, we have to go back to 2007.

Seventeen years ago on Canada Day, at an almost unrecognizably young BMO Field in Toronto, Canada and Chile played in the grand opening of the FIFA U-20 World Cup. More than 20,000 were in attendance, and although that tournament was a celebration of the beautiful game across Canada, this particular match ended in lopsided defeat for the host nation, as Chile won 3-0.

It wasn’t the most glorious day for Canadian soccer, with head coach Dale Mitchell quoted by CBC postmatch calling the game “an experience, but not an extremely pleasant one.”

Although Canada went out in the group stage with three losses and no goals scored, that tournament was undeniably memorable in this country, and in some ways set a foundation for the sport both at home and around the world for the next decade or so.

The story of the competition, obviously, was Argentina, who rode the breakout of a 19-year-old Sergio Aguëro and Ángel Di María all the way to lifting the trophy. Innumerable other budding stars featured at Canada 2007 as well, from Juan Mata and Gerard Piqué to Luis Suárez and Marcelo.

BMO Field during the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Back to Chile and Canada, though. Looking back at it now, the team sheets for those sides drum up all sorts of feelings and memories, both positive and negative.

Canada’s lineup on that day: Asmir Begovic, Nana Attakora, David Edgar, Marcus Haber, Kent O’Connor, Jonathan Beaulieu-Bourgault, Will Johnson, Jaime Peters, Cristian Núñez, Simeon Jackson, Andrea Lombardo. The bench included the likes of Tosaint Ricketts and David Monsalve.

Seven of those Canadian starters would go on to represent the senior national team, while Begovic would, notoriously, choose to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina. Edgar had arguably the best career of them, with a solid stint in England — at the time he’d already debuted in the Premier League for Newcastle United.

Chile, meanwhile, had a squad featuring five players that would go on to feature in their group at both the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. In that game in Toronto, Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla, Carlos Carmona and Gary Medel all started, taking early steps in what would become illustrious international careers.

Not in the squad that day for the young Chileans? An 18-year-old called Alexis Sánchez.

Now possibly the greatest Chilean player of all time, and the national team’s leader in both caps (165) and goals (51), Sánchez was one of the major standout players at the 2007 U-20 World Cup, at the time a relatively unknown teenager playing for Colo-Colo.

On Saturday, a 35-year-old Sánchez — as well a 36-year-old Isla — will face Canada once again, at the opposite end of his career. In between, he’s been all over the top levels of the game, playing for Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester United and now Inter Milan. He delivered Chile its first-ever Copa América title in 2015, and then he delivered it another one the year after.

Chile’s Alexis Sánchez celebrates winning Copa América in 2016 (Photo courtesy Concacaf /OSVALDO AGUILAR/MEXSPORT)

Chilean and Canadian soccer were in very different places in 2007. La Roja were on the cusp of a golden generation, soon to qualify for back-to-back World Cup last 16s and win consecutive Copas. Canada, meanwhile, would need another 15 years to get back to the world stage.

One thing stands out most about the squad lists, though. For Chile, all but two players in their 2007 squad were attached to a professional club in the Chilean league system. Meanwhile, Canada had just six of 21 players at a Canadian club (all of them at Toronto FC, which had only begun its first season several months before).

That 2007 U-20 World Cup was part of the beginning for a lot of change in the Canadian soccer world, with many of the facilities and events from that tournament helping lay the groundwork for where the current national team finds itself.

Seventeen years later though, it’s striking to see how far the Canadian program has come. The national team side that will take on Chile this weekend features 19 players who have played for either a Canadian professional club or a League1 Canada side — neither of which existed in nearly the numbers they do today.

The number of domestic opportunities now available to Canadian players have given the current generation a leg up, and now a fighting chance against a country like Chile where those domestic opportunities have existed for decades.

On Saturday, Canada have the chance to take a step they’ve never taken before, and get to the knockout stage of a major international tournament. Being in this position is the product of years of rapid growth, as star after star has burst onto the scene in recent memory.

That loss to Chile in 2007 feels like a world away, and in some ways it is.

However, playing against Canada that day helped jumpstart a golden age for Chile. Could this be a moment for Canada to return the favour, and enter a new era of their own?