One game, one spot, one word: “Hell.”
“That’s all you can expect coming into these games,” Julian de Guzman said following Canada’s final walk-through ahead of today’s decisive World Cup qualifier.
An estimated 38,000 Hondurans will pile into the Estadio Olimpico here this afternoon, creating one of the most intimidating environments in the region — if not the world.
Sitting two points clear of Honduras heading into a one-off match against the Central Americans, a loss will see Canada miss out on CONCACAF’s last six for a fourth consecutive World Cup cycle, eliminating it from 2014 contention and undoubtedly killing the, at times, over-sold hope that the Reds are on the verge of something special.
“We’re in the driver’s seat as it stands and that’s how we want to keep it for the next 90 minutes,” de Guzman said.
Upon touching down in the northern Honduran metropolis of 1.2 million on Sunday night, head coach Stephen Hart assured a small group of travelling media Canada wouldn’t fall into the same trappings it did before a 2-0 loss last month in Panama, where multiple players said the team entered its only third-round loss in the wrong mindset.
The Reds were outplayed from start to finish in the Panamanian capital, essentially handing over a final round berth to La Roja. After failing to match Panama’s energy and composure in that road qualifier, a repeat performance will see the Reds run over within the first half-hour today.
“I want the players to enjoy the moment,” Hart said of this afternoon’s match, one he has repeatedly said Canada can’t play for a draw in. “(We) can play the game. (We) have the ability. It’s to bring it out in a relaxed concentrated form.”
Although a tie will see Canada progress to next year’s final round — from which three CONCACAF nations receive automatic qualification to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — every indication is that Canada will look for goals in a game it can otherwise afford to see out goalless.
Without an injured Dwayne De Rosario and a suspended Olivier Occean, two players who have supplied game-winners this round, Canada needs a hero — someone who’s ready to emerge and hang their name alongside Canada’s fabled 1986 team in World Cup folklore.
“I think it will be massive for (Canada),” Hart said of securing passage. “We’re playing against a country that was chosen to win the group. They’ve just recently played in a World Cup.”
The harsh — but fair — reality of the situation is next to no one believes Canada can pick up a result in Central America when it matters. Since 1996, the country has secured qualifying points just once within the region, a 1-0 win over Guatemala in 2004 when Canada’s group had already been decided.
“We know we can come in and right a lot of wrongs and really give a boost not just to ourselves but Canada Soccer,” Andre Hainault said. “We know we’re at the level where we should be (in CONCACAF’s final round).”
But getting there is arguably more difficult than navigating CONCACAF’s last six, from which the fourth-place finisher will meet the top finisher from Oceania — very likely New Zealand — in a home-and-away series for a World Cup berth next year.
“It’s about getting to that final stage and giving ourselves a chance to get to the World Cup,” Canadian captain Kevin McKenna said. “Everyone’s going to be fighting for it … As long as everyone gives 100% then I’m happy. Whatever happens after the game, it’s not going to be because of effort.”
A common theme around Monday’s final training session, hell or no hell, it’s time for Canada to step up when times are tough, to show it can play well in a one-off game under difficult circumstances.
For how well Canada has played in the current stage, until it advances beyond CONCACAF’s third round supporters across the country won’t remember the time Canada nearly completed something special.
Until then, Canadian supporters will continue to search for a team — a hero — to idolize alongside the now mythic 1986 team, something that could change here this afternoon if Canada can grab a result in the harshest of conditions.
FEELING THE HEAT
Beyond the blue-clad capacity crowd here this afternoon, environmental concerns persist.
Today’s match was originally scheduled to kickoff well into the evening, but had to be pushed forward due to Canada’s group still being undecided.
“We need some more clouds tomorrow,” Canadian head coach Stephen Hart said of the scorching mid-day sun. “Start spraying the water bottles in the air.”
Although Panama is essentially through if it avoids a big loss in Cuba, no Group C team has officially secured passage meaning Canada’s game had to be rescheduled to start alongside the match in Havana, where the Cuban federation plays without lights.
“It’s hot, but we’ve got to deal with it,” Canadian captain Kevin McKenna said following pre-match training. “They’ve got to deal with it, too. It’s too bad the game can’t be at night.”
With temperatures peaking at 33C, game management could play a big role Tuesday afternoon.
“We have to make sure we’re organized,” Atiba Hutchinson said. “If we can get through the first 20 minutes of the game it will be huge for us … We’ll just have to do our part defensively.”
As the Hondurans look to push the issue early and often, Canada must take every opportunity to slow things down and conserve throughout.