Soccer Canada building for 2014

DAVE FULLER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:00 PM ET

TORONTO - It’s a long way from Toronto to Brazil 2014, especially for a country whose only World Cup appearance was in 1986.

But Friday was a start — small as it may seem — with the announcement that the Canadian men’s soccer team will play five international friendlies between May 24 and Oct. 8, including one in Toronto and another in Montreal.

Last year, Canada didn’t contest a single international match on home turf — not exactly progress for a team which is forever trying to make itself relevant to the Canadian sports fan.

Canada’s men’s team is currently ranked No. 64 in the world, one place ahead of Macedonia, and one behind Iran. Any chance of qualifying for this summer’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa vanished more than a year ago.

Still, the men will play a friendly against World Cup contender and twice champion Argentina on May 24 in Buenos Aires.

Five days later, they will battle Venezuela in Merida.

The men won’t play again until Sept. 4, in Toronto, against a team to be determined. Ecuador has been mentioned as one possibility.

Honduras — another 2010 World Cup participant — battles Canada in Montreal on Sept. 7.

“Our fan base, our public has been clamouring for the national team to play at home so I’m sure they will welcome this news,” said Stephen Hart, who became the team’s full-time head coach last December.

“This is important to the players but also important to build that home-field feel, home advantage that you get that we have probably missed in the past.”

At least, that’s the hope, though at times Canada’s opponent — for instance the Hondurans in Montreal in 2008 — seemed to have as many supporters in the crowd as the home team.

The only way for the Canadian men to turn that around is to start winning.

And that is always the difficulty, with team members scattered in leagues around the world.

It doesn’t help that next month’s games in Argentina and Venezuela are non-FIFA dates, which means professional clubs aren’t obilged to release players for the friendlies.

“We will ask for them and hopefully with our working relationship with the clubs we will get the players we want,” said Hart, during a news conference on Friday at BMO Field. “But it’s going to be difficult.”

Still, Hart is ecstatic about the opportunity the two games in South America will provide his team.

“Anybody would love to play against one of the best teams in the world,” he said. “But it’s also important to raise standards. If you are going to raise the standard of the national team then you have to play against opposition that is better.”

Canada’s fifth friendly and final away game is Oct. 8 in Ukraine.

Hart expects a heavier international schedule next year as Canada attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, beginning in 2012.

“I’ve made it clear to the (Canadian soccer) board what I would like to see and what any coach in this position would like to see,” Hart said. “I think they’re working hard to try and put this together and to provide everything necessary for the team to be prepared for 2012.”

Canada hasn’t won a game against an international side since its 1-0 victory over El Salvador at the 2009 Gold Cup.

Since then, the men have lost four games along with a tie against Costa Rica.

In their only previous outing this year, the Canadians fell 1-0 to Jamaica, Jan. 31, in Kingston.

dave.fuller@sunmedia.ca


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