TORONTO - When Costa Rican referee Jeffrey Solis blew his whistle for the final time at BMO Field on Friday night, Canadian goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld dropped to the field in joy, and no doubt in relief.
Fridayís World Cup qualifying match between Canada and Panama was turning into one of those frustrating, disheartening affairs that fans of the Canadian menís soccer team know all too well.
Throughout the first half, and into the second, the Canadians held the edge in play, but time and again ó which has been typical for this team over the years ó they failed to capitalize on their scoring chances. Finally, in the 77th minute, on a historic goal by former Toronto FC star Dwayne De Rosario, the home side put one behind Panamanian keeper Jaime Penedo, and, suddenly, for the first time since 1985, there is a real sense that maybe, just maybe, this team is good enough to qualify for the World Cup.
It has been 26 years since the Canadian menís one and only appearance in the World Cup final and most attempts since the 1986 have fallen miserably short. But the 17,586 fans at BMO Field on Friday night left the stadium with a sense that the drought may finally come to an end.
As it stands now, Canada has played three games in this third round of regional World Cup qualifying and have seven points ó good enough for first place in the four-team division, a division that includes two higher ranked sides, Panama (50th in the world), and Honduras (72nd), as well as Cuba. Canada is ranked 73rd in the world and has been clearly the best team in the group so far, though it only has two goals in three games to show for its efforts. The top two teams in the division move on to next yearís final qualifying round.
Goal scoring continues to be Canadaís bugaboo and if it hopes for results in its next three games, it has to start finishing. Stephen Hartís team has played some inspired football, but with two of the final three games on the road, starting with a rematch in Panama on Tuesday, it has to find a way to score consistently and not just rely on its stingy defence.
But if thereís any one player who can take the bull by the horns offensively and lead Canada to the promise land so to speak, itís De Rosario. His goal, off a quick free kick by Atiba Hutchinson in front of the Panama goal, marked his 20th for Canada, passing former national team head coach and player Dale Mitchell, who was a member of the 1986 World Cup squad.
De Ro is one of the few truly gifted goal scorers on Canada, a team that plays with guts and determination, but with limited flair on offence. Itís like every time it gets a solid chance, somebody pours liquid nitrogen over the attacking player. But Canadian soccer fans arenít worrying about that today. They can smell a spot in the World Cup, and thatís pretty special.
For many of us of a certain age, the Canadian men qualifying for one more World Cup has become a bucket list wish. And now, finally, there is some hope.
There are some major obstacles to overcome. Itís still an uphill battle. Even if Canada qualifies for the final round next year, the odds are still stacked against it. Only six teams qualify for the final round of CONCACAF, including, no doubt, world powers the U.S. and Mexico. Of those six, only the top three move on to Brazil in 2014 and one more facing an Oceania team for the final spot.
Itís a hard, tough grind.
But for the next few days at least, Canadian fans can at least sit back and dream, with a realistic sense that sometimes dreams can come true.