June 1, 2012
There's more than the Euros comingSoccer world's focus won't be just on Europe next week with Cup qualifiers underway
By KURTIS LARSON, QMI AGENCY
TORONTO - One of the world’s biggest sporting events picks up next week with a handful of massive fixtures Friday afternoon.
Fans will clamour around television sets worldwide to watch with bated breath as their fellow countrymen compete for international glory — but not at Euro 2012.
Despite what you’ve picked up while walking in close proximity to Toronto’s European populace, for the next few weeks fans of the global game will be more interested in the 80 World Cup qualifiers that are set to kick off across five continents than the start of the Euros in Eastern Europe.
Sorry European soccer enthusiasts, while I’ll undoubtedly tune in to the occurrences in Poland and the Ukraine, UEFA’s continental tournament doesn’t come close to matching the magnitude of what’s set to take place from every corner of the globe.
In case you needed a reminder, of the 71 countries that have already been knocked out of contention for a place at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Canada isn’t one of them.
Following a friendly against the U.S. in Toronto tomorrow night, the Reds open CONCACAF’s third round of qualifying in Havana, Cuba, on June 8, minutes after Poland and Greece complete their opening Euro 2012 match in Warsaw.
Before arriving in Toronto on Thursday afternoon, Team Canada had been training in Sunrise, Fla., in order to acclimatize to the conditions it will undoubtedly face during next week’s crucial qualifier in Havana.
“I think it’s essential,” current head coach Stephen Hart told the Sun. “The heat really takes its toll on players who are not accustomed to it. The Cuba game is at 2 p.m. (Conditions) are a major factor.”
In need of two results in its first two matches, Canada returns to BMO Field four days later hoping to avoid the knockout blow it suffered early last cycle.
AVOIDING A REPEAT
It’s the one constant in World Cup qualifying.
“Win your home games,” then Canadian coach Dale Mitchell said in 2008 — the past time Canada failed to advance from CONCACAF’s third round.
“Then look for points, whether it’s a draw or whatever, away from home,” he concluded before leading Canada into a disastrous qualifying campaign.
Two weeks later, the Reds were dead and buried. Out of the competition after drawing Jamaica in Toronto and dropping all three points to Honduras in Montreal — a massive disappointment for a nation looking to return to the world’s biggest stage for the first time since 1986.
Coincidentally, Canada faces a similar test this time around. After opening in Cuba — a game it desperately needs to win — the Reds once again face Honduras at home in the second of six third-round matches.
“Ideally, you want to get results out of both games,” Hart told the Sun. “If we could come away with four points it gives us a good position.
“We’ve got one game (in Cuba) and we’ve got to see how that game goes. If we come out of that game healthy and we get a result, we have (Honduras). We need to do very well in our home games.”
And, as Mitchell so clearly stated back in 2008, steal a few points on the road.
During a press conference last month, Hart confirmed Canada will need at least 10 points from a possible 18 for a chance at securing passage to CONCACAF’s six-team final round for the first time since 1998.
With away dates looming in Panama and Honduras this fall, a good result in Cuba will provide Canada its best chance of advancing.
“Traditionally Cuba has been very difficult to play in Cuba,” Hart said. “If you look at the games they’ve played there and the results they’ve gotten, it’s not a guarantee game.”
Need proof? With the Americans in town tomorrow for a final tune-up, who better to ask than the side that narrowly escaped Havana with a 1-0 result during the last qualifying campaign?
“(Cuba) hasn’t played for quite a while so it’s difficult to say that we’ve seen them,” Hart said of Canada’s opening opponent. “We’re not in control of the pitch, the referee, the rain or the heat. But those things we are in control of we’re going to be as efficient as possible.”
After getting smashed 4-1 by Brazil earlier this week, the Americans will look to set things straight before opening their qualifying group against Antigua and Barbuda.
The two sides last met in Detroit at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, with the Americans walking away with a convincing 2-0 win.
While the U.S. enters Sunday have played multiple friendlies, Canada’s preparation has been rather tame, which enhances the magnitude of tomorrow’s match being a final chance to bring the Canadians together.
“It’s our last practice game before we play Cuba,” Hart said. “We have to be realistic in our approach. I’ve been talking to the players about it. We’re going to select a squad to play against the U.S., but always with Cuba in mind.”
And with 11 returning players from the roster that failed four years ago, Canada’s persistent poor starts will likely still be fresh in most players’ minds.
Head over to Larson's blog for a chance to win an official Canadian national team anthem jacket following Sunday's friendly against the U.S.