SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS - Don’t let its post-apocalyptic appearance fool you, the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, Honduras’ national soccer stadium, was constructed ahead of the 1997 Central America Games.
Just over a decade old, the venue’s dilapidated state is both intimidating and menacing, looking as though it could crumble under the weight of the estimated 40,000 Hondurans that will crowd the national stadium tomorrow afternoon.
After squeezing through an unlocked stadium gate here Sunday — and before being ejected from the normally vacant stadium by a lone security guard and his dog — a sense of intimidation fills anyone who ventures into the standing-room-only cement stands.
Without a club team to call it home, the Olimpico’s sole purpose is to house Honduran qualifiers and friendlies — and to act as an intimidating fortress just outside the city’s main square.
“We hope to see the stadium filled,” Honduran midfielder Oscar Boniek Garcia told a local newspaper. “If we look at a packed stadium, we are motivated even more. We have to win at home.”
If the barbed wire fencing that separates blue-clad supporters from the players isn’t intimidating enough, a small moat isolates the pitch, providing an extra barrier between sometimes rowdy fans and the game.
“Probably the most hostile atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” Andre Hainault said of a 2008 World Cup qualifier at the same venue. “I can remember coming out for the game and there’s this caged tunnel and the people are climbing all over and shaking it.”
And that’s all before addressing the surface.
While not as poor as Havana’s converted baseball stadium on Matchday 1, the grass is akin to a poorly-manicured rough surrounded by a hazardous track that resides less than a metre away — the true definition of home-field advantage.
OCCEAN A BIG MISS
The last time Canadian head coach Stephen Hart named a starting XI that didn’t include Olivier Occean, Canada was taken to the cleaners by a Panamanian side that looked superior from start to finish.
Now, after Canada’s lone target man was controversially sent off by Puerto Rican referee Javier Santos in a 3-0 win over Cuba Friday, Canada’s bench boss will have more decisions to make.
“He didn’t strike the guy in the face,” hart said of Occean’s sending off. “I think if the referee was in a position to send people off he should send off two instead of one.”
Playing its best brand in a defensive 4-5-1, without Occean to hold up play and distribute with his back to goal, Hart’s lineup remains a mystery.
Will he approach tomorrow’s match the same way he did in Panama, opening up and attempting to confidently operate in a 4-4-2? Or did he learn his lesson when the Panamanians picked apart Canada’s four-man middle third, issuing the Reds their only loss in this third round of qualifying?
A significantly more dangerous side playing in Central America, Honduras is going to get chances.
It’s up to Hart to reshuffle his deck and conjure up a lineup that’s capable of limiting the quality of those opportunities while occasionally pushing forward to relieve the unending pressure the Hondurans are sure to produce.
Following Occean’s ejection Friday night, Canada’s staff scrambled to get an extra body up top, especially with all-time leading goal-scorer Dwayne De Rosario sidelined with a knee injury.
“It’s going to be tight,” head coach Stephen Hart said of adding a late replacement ahead of tomorrow’s match. “It’s going to be really tight to try and get somebody in. We’ll see what we can do.”
Less than 24 hours later, Canadian under-23 mainstay Lucas Cavallini boarded a flight from Uruguay to Miami, arriving in Honduras on Sunday afternoon.
Cavallini, who has three goals in five appearances on loan at Uruguay’s Juventud this season, was instrumental in Canada progressing ahead of the U.S. to the semifinal round of CONCACAF’s Olympic qualifying tournament last March.
“I got the call and everything all at once happened,” Cavallini said of Saturday night. The 19-year-old had to finish a match with his club team before sorting out his travel.
“I had to finish the match, go home right away, pack and fly to (San Pedro Sula) right away.”
A big body who’s capable of banging up top and doing the dirty laundry in front of goal, combined with his experience playing in difficult environments, Cavallini offers Hart an additional option up front in a side that heads into tomorrow’s qualifier with just four healthy strikers.
SPOTS SET TO DWINDLE
Three more CONCACAF teams will be eliminated from World Cup contention following tomorrow’s qualifying date, dropping the total number of nations still competing for a 2014 berth to 122.
After FIFA opened 2014 qualification with 203 teams, Canada is hoping to avoid missing out on CONCACAF’s final round for a fourth consecutive cycle.
“The players look very relaxed,” Hart said of the emotions of such a decisive match. “Some of them are going into the biggest game of their lives really. We will just try to keep them calm but focused on the task at hand.”
As hosts Brazil receive automatic passage to FIFA’s 20th tournament, with qualifying well underway across the globe, 31 spots remain open.