De Guzman makes history
By NEIL DAVIDSON
(CP) - On the northwest tip of Spain, looking out on the Atlantic Ocean, midfielder Julian de Guzman is making Canadian soccer history.
The 24-year-old from Toronto is the first Canadian to play in La Liga, the top flight of Spanish soccer, after moving from Germany's Hannover to Deportivo La Coruna in the off-season. Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose, national team coach Frank Yallop and de Guzman himself can't think of any other Canadians who have played in La Liga, a quality league that is filled to the brim with stars from around the globe.
Now, at Deportivo, there's a little bit of Canada in addition to talent from Argentina, Paraguay, Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.
"It's a great move for him," said Yallop. "I'm look forward to working with Julian, because I think his game will change.
"I think the style of soccer in Spain will suit better (than Germany)."
Listed at 5-7 and - generously - at 165 pounds by the Canadian Soccer Association, de Guzman has a deft touch with the ball. He has style.
So far, de Guzman is enjoying life in Spain in advance of the season-opener Sunday in Mallorca.
After three years in Germany, the weather is a welcome change. And he says the people are positive. There is also plenty of history in the city of 250,000. The Spanish Armada left there in 1588. The city was sacked in 1598 by Sir Francis Drake.
"It's a great city. . . . The culture and the ambience is amazing," de Guzman said.
And the soccer is star-studded. De Guzman could find himself rubbing shoulders with David Beckham one week, Ronaldinho another.
"For me, I think it's the best league in the world. Playing against a lot of the stars and playing among stars as well is a dream come true. And something I never imagined last season until the offer was actually concrete.
"Now that I'm here, I'm going to make the best of it for the four years I signed."
He is willing to take it slowly, learning from the internationals around him and working his way into the team.
De Guzman has already started twice in the Intertoto Cup, including the second leg of the final on Tuesday in Marseille, France. He has also made two appearances as a substitute.
The club obviously thinks highly of him. He was given No. 6, the same number that star Brazilian midfielder Mauro Silva wore before he retired at the end of last season.
Now Deportivo looks to Spanish international Sergio to pull the strings in midfield.
It's a veteran squad with a proud tradition. Finishing eighth was a disappointment last season.
"For Hannover, eighth place in the Bundesliga would be a good thing," de Guzman noted.
In La Coruna, he's found a house about 500 metres from the beach just outside the city.
"The area's really nice, really peaceful and the people are great."
The only downside is Hannover was only a three-hour drive from Rotterdam where his younger brother Jonathan is in the Feyenoord system. Now he faces a couple of flights to say hello.
New Deportivo coach Joaquin Caparros, the former Sevilla boss who succeeded longtime Deportivo coach Javier Irureta, has been trying de Guzman at different positions including right back and right wing.
De Guzman doesn't mind. He'll do what needs to be done.
He is similarly coping with working in Spanish. Thanks to his knowledge of French, he says he can pretty much understand what's going on and reckons he will soon pick up the language.
His soccer travels have done wonders for his ability to communicate.
"The German is pretty good, the French is still there and the English is OK," he said with a laugh.
De Guzman will meet up with his Canadian mates next week in advance of the Sept. 3 friendly against Spain in Santander. He's looking forward to it, and not just because he plays his club football in Spain.
"It's always an honour to play for Canada," he said.
While the Spanish season doesn't start until this weekend, Deportivo has already had a roller-coaster ride in the Intertoto Cup.
The tournament is a second-tier event that offers a backdoor way into the UEFA Cup for three teams. Deportivo made it to the final stage after beating Buducnost of Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia's Slaven and England's Newcastle.
That left Deportivo against Olympique Marseille.
Deportivo, with de Guzman on the bench, won the opening leg 2-0 at home. Things looked positive for the return leg in Marseille. But the rematch went south for the Spaniards in the second half when Marseille poured in four goals.
Each team had a player sent off in the 12th minute. Before it was over, 10 more yellow cards had been shown - including one to de Guzman - and Deportivo was down to nine men after another player was sent off in the 71st minute.
With three minutes left in regulation time, Deportivo was down 3-1 and teetering although still ahead on aggregate thanks to its away goal. With no substitutes available and striker Pedro Munitis injured, Deportivo was effectively down to eight players.
The Spaniards finally cracked. Marseille scored in the 88th and 93rd minutes for a 5-1 win on the day and 5-3 aggregate victory.
De Guzman played every minute.
"It was an unbelievable match," he said.
"Every time I looked at the clock, it seemed to be going a bit slower than it was supposed to be."
The game also meant something to de Guzman because he started his European football at Marseille as a teenager. He spent one season with the under-17 team and two with the reserve side.
"Being able to play there in the stadium was actually a dream come true," he said.