Opportunity knocks for Canada | Soccer | CBC Sports

CanadaOpportunity knocks for Canada

Posted: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 | 11:24 PM

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Canadian soccer coach Stephen Hart (left), striker Simeon Jackson (middle) and midfielder Atiba Hutchinson (right) pose in this Aug. 31, 2011, file photo in Toronto before a World Cup qualifier at BMO Field with St.Lucia. Canada won the game 4-1. (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) Canadian soccer coach Stephen Hart (left), striker Simeon Jackson (middle) and midfielder Atiba Hutchinson (right) pose in this Aug. 31, 2011, file photo in Toronto before a World Cup qualifier at BMO Field with St.Lucia. Canada won the game 4-1. (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press)

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It was always a means to an end. The finish line is now in sight and Canada must sprint across it. This is not a time to jog the last few metres. This is a time to complete the course with a swagger and something to spare.

It is not about ifs, but when and how. Gaining the requisite point against St. Kitts & Nevis to advance to the third stage of World Cup qualifying will be achieved. It is about earning respect from future opponents, much of which was lost at the abortive Gold Cup campaign back in the summer.
It was always a means to an end. The finish line is now in sight and Canada must sprint across it. This is not a time to jog the last few metres. This is a time to complete the course with a swagger and something to spare.

It is not about ifs, but when and how. Gaining the requisite point against St. Kitts & Nevis to advance to the third stage of World Cup qualifying will be achieved. It is about earning respect from future opponents, much of which was lost at the abortive Gold Cup campaign back in the summer.

Before the month is out the job will be done. The players will have justified the expectation and eliminated three island nations from the qualifying process. Canada will move on and improve its FIFA world ranking in the process.

There is planning to be done. Canada is not the only nation mapping a course. Representatives from Honduras, Cuba and Panama will be doing their homework. They will be watching, learning and scrutinizing Canada's strengths and weaknesses in preparation for the road ahead.     

They would foolish not to. They and we watched Canada's futile displays at the Gold Cup, but working on assumptions is a dangerous game. Canada has not become a CONCACAF powerhouse overnight but I believe Stephen Hart's squad is now better equipped to deal with the challenges to come.

Developing a taste for victory


For a start there is a winning feeling in the camp. For the first time in a long time Canada is getting used to the taste of victory. Winning is habit forming - it breeds confidence and belief rather than a sense of foreboding every time a player sets foot on the field.   

There is a better understanding between the individual players and the separate segments of the team. The goalkeeper, for example, knows when to trust his defenders to clear a ball in the penalty area and when to come and claim. In the same way everyone knows their responsibility in dealing with set pieces - often a route to goal in pressure situations.

In some areas, the improvement is more subtle. As Hart himself observed after the recent below par performance again Puerto Rico, Canada is not used to being the dominant force. It has become familiar playing a relatively solid defensive game, breaking forward on an occasional ad-hoc basis.

In other words, Canada needs to adapt. It needs to learn how to take the game to the opponent and be creative. Lateral midfield passes may protect the ball but it won't hurt the opposition. Quickness of thought and execution, combined with intelligent off the ball movement certainly will. Canada needs to get up to speed, literally and metaphorically, if it is to be truly competitive when the hill gets steeper.  

Then there is the bigger picture. There is a belief a page has been turned and something positive has begun. Crying over split milk never did anyone any good. History, of course, should never be ignored or lessons are never learned. But in soccer, as in life, progress can only be achieved with an optimistic, can-do attitude.

Fans are on board

There is also a sense of relevance. Fans are beginning to care about this group of players and where the journey might lead. The team cannot move forward without a pro-Canadian crowd or a section of mainstream media which must understand and embrace the significance of Canada's mission.

Opportunity is knocking. Canada has a chance to go deeper in World Cup qualifying than at any point in the last 15 years. The draw has been as favourable as Hart, his players, and the fans could possibly have hoped. St. Kitts & Nevis represents the final obstacle to progress. The hurdle must be overcome in a professional, perhaps clinical, manner. Nothing less is acceptable.

It is time to transmit the message across the region. Canada is not here to participate or make up the numbers. Canada is here to compete and that is all. Canada will respect all opponents but will not be intimidated by them. Canada has earned the right to play at a higher level and should not be underestimated.  

Brand me a cheerleader if you will. I will take it on the understanding you and I realize something special is in the offing. There is a route map which, if managed properly, can propel Canada to 'The Hex'. The United States, Mexico and others take the final round of qualifying for granted. For the first time since the late 90's, Canada has a credible chance to join CONCACAF's elite.

Addressing the tug-of-war

What's the alternative? We continue to downplay the importance of the national team as a bland, irritating sideshow which robs MLS franchises, and others, of its Canadian content during key points of the season. Belatedly, Major League Soccer is beginning to address the club versus country tug-of-war which, for too long, has left talented players with an impossible choice.

We'll all be watching in 2014. With or without Canada's involvement, the FIFA World Cup in Brazil will be compulsive viewing for many in this country. We don't have to wait for 2014 to make international soccer important again. Let's make it important now while we can still get behind Canada and dream of the Promised Land.

For the record, I am not a cockeyed optimist. I do not believe Canada will reach The Hex, much less the World Cup itself, without a struggle and some luck along the way. I do, however, believe it is possible and I am prepared to celebrate its modest achievements when appropriate. In my estimation, we should simply give credit when credit is due.

There is no doubt Canada is destined for a tougher road. That is how it should be. Nothing truly worth having should come easily. Canada will make progress but securing one point from two games in November cannot be the goal. This squad must sign off in style for its own good and that of a hopeful nation.

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