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Underdog Zambia a sentimental favourite

On paper, today's pivotal FIFA 2007 Under-20 World Cup Group B match shouldn't even be close.

On paper, today's pivotal FIFA 2007 Under-20 World Cup Group B match shouldn't even be close.

On one side is the U-20 team of the historic two-time World Cup and two-time Olympic champion soccer nation Uruguay, featuring sleek young pros like Luis Suarez of the Dutch club Groningen and Edinson Cavani of Palermo and Juan Surraco of Udinese of the vaunted Italian league.

On the other side is Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia. It was a rising soccer nation heading into the senior 1994 World Cup in the U.S. before 18 members of the Zambian national team died in a plane crash in 1993 in what is still lamented as a national tragedy. Throw in the debilitating spectres of poverty and disease in many family backgrounds and not one of these Zambian U-20 national team players has yet made it to a European pro league.

But the game, today at 2:15 p.m., won't be played on paper but on the verdant new pitch at Royal Athletic Park.

It's easy to see why the Zambians became the crowd darlings of Group B during their first two games at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, in which they tied Jordan 1-1 and fought mighty Spain for all it was worth in a 2-1 loss.

Uruguay, meanwhile, has looked slick and sophisticated with a win and a tie for four points. Zambia sits on one point and can move into a tie with Uruguay with an upset today. There will be a lot of people rooting for the underdog Zambians in what is again expected to be a sold-out Royal Athletic Park.

Zambia head coach George Lwandamina noted "Uruguay is a renowned country in football" but said few people realize what his players have accomplished just in qualifying.

"We've made a lot of strides. For these boys to play at this level and face all the challenges they have in front of them, is quite something," said Lwandamina.

Clifford Mulenga, the star midfielder from Pretoria University in South Africa, is the only player on the Zambian side playing outside his country.

"Not many people thought we would play the way we've done, but we've surprised them," said Mulenga, after practice yesterday.

"Uruguay is a good team, but they are very beatable and we will win," added Mulenga, showing some bravado in trying to keep Zambian spirits lifted.

Could it actually be magic time today in Victoria for the nation that boasts the Victoria Falls? That prospect is problematic.

"Zambia is a very good team. [But] we have a great deal of quality skills with our players who are in European and local leagues, and this tournament could lead to Europe for more of our players," said Uruguayan midfielder and Dutch league pro Suarez, through a Spanish interpreter yesterday at Royal Athletic Park.