TORONTO - The lead-up to the Canada-Cuba World Cup qualifying game on Friday night in Toronto had all the intrigue of a Cold War spy novel.
As game-time approached, reports surfaced that the Cuban team had arrived at BMO Field with only 11 players, despite reportedly bringing 16 to the Great White North. Either there were some defections, or the second team bus got horribly lost. Typically, Cuban officials were somewhat tight-lipped about the situation.
And then, for much of the warmup, only one Cuban took to the field, goalkeeper Molina Hernandez Odelin — prompting rumours that the game would be forfeited and FIFA would grant Canada three points. Eventually Odelin’s remaining teammates did join him on the pitch and the match was played, though with no one on the Cuban bench.
As expected, Canada defeated Cuba — a side that finished this second-last round of World Cup qualifying without a point — and now head to Honduras for their final game of this year’s qualifying.
And that’s when the real intrigue begins.
Tuesday’s game is for all the marbles. If Canada wins, they move on next year to the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro — with six teams playing for four spots in Rio (the top three qualifying automatically and the fourth-place side moving on to an intercontinental playoff for the last spot). Canada’s only World Cup appearance came in 1986.
To beat Honduras, the Canadians have to find a balance between controlled and desperate football. And they have to play an inspired match — unlike in their last game in Central America, a 2-0 loss in Panama on Sept.11. The Panamanian fans partied outside the Canadian team hotel into the wee hours of the morning the day of the match, but the Canadian players and coach Stephen Hart promised that such intimidation tactics would not throw them off their game. They failed to live up to that promise. Against Los Canaleros, the Canadians looked nervous and intimidated.
On Tuesday, in Honduras, they have to get it done. Whatever it takes, a win or a draw, or a win by a lot of goals, whatever it takes, they have to rise to the occasion. There are no second chances. They can’t let the crowd or the conditions or the pitch or the refereeing throw them off their game. They have to stand up and be counted. Canadian teams have been shafted in CONCACAF matches numerous times in years past, but if there are any shenanigans next Tuesday, they have to find a way to rise above it.
Perhaps the national federation, Canada Soccer, can do their part. How’s this for an idea? Put the game officials, and the referee, on notice. Make some noise leading up to Tuesday’s game about being concerned about the officiating, given the fact that Canadian teams have been screwed so many times by poor officiating in the past. In other words, put a bug in CONCACAF’s ear.
Canada Soccer also has to ensure that the team won’t be up half the night on the day of the match, as they were in Panama. Change hotels at the last minute if necessary and fly down extra security. Tape some inspiring messages from some great Canadians to play for the lads prior to the match.
With so much at stake, it’s time to think outside the box in terms of gaining any advantage possible.
Canada will be missing their leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario for Tuesday’s game, but they will have plenty going for them, most notably the fact that they out-played Honduras when the teams met at BMO Field on June 12, though, typically, Canada couldn’t finish, and came away with a 0-0 draw.
If they’re fortunate, Canada won’t have to face one of Honduras’ key players, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza, who is nursing an ankle injury.
But the bottom line is this: Canada has to figure out a way to score goals. They scored three against Cuba on Friday night, but should have had scored many more, and that’s been their problem throughout this third round of qualifying. The lack of finish has been incredibly frustrating for everyone, the fans, the players, the coaches ...
Perhaps it’s time for coach Hart to change tactics or shake up his lineup somewhat. As the old saying goes: nothing ventured, nothing gained.