HAVANA - Plastic cups litter the ground around the Memories resort pool in Varadero. A 100 or so Canadian soccer fans, who call themselves The Voyageurs, have made the 2,500-kilometre trip to Cuba to watch the Canadian national team in the opening game of World Cup qualification.
The Voyageurs have been partying on the Cuban beaches for days now - living it up with beers and bbq - but that party could come to an abrupt end if Canada fails to perform come Friday afternoon (1:30 p.m. ET) against Cuba.
Quite simply, as the Canucks head into this next round of qualification, they will need to take a full six points from a home-and-home with Cuba if they hope to advance out of a group that includes Honduras and Panama.
Failure to do so would result in a much more difficult qualifying road.
Honduras, which qualified for the last World Cup, is the obvious favourite but it's Panama, which put down CONCACAF rivals Jamaica 1-0 last week in a tune-up game that is the real threat to Canada's chances. Panamanian soccer has been on the rise for the past few years now.
They've shown strong performances at the Gold Cup and they've continued to play consistent football - which, when it comes to World Cup qualifying, is the difference between keeping the party going and kicking everybody out.
Canada, on the other hand, has rarely shown consistency. In fact, they've become notorious for playing down to their opponents. A 0-0 draw against Saint Kitts and Nevis in the last round of qualifying was a prime example of that. Lots of blame was tossed around after that match. Despite the fact the draw proved to be the point Canada needed to advance on to this round, it was as an uninspiring performance against an opponent with a population half the size of Prince Edward Island.Desperate for better results
A draw or worse against Cuba this week, obviously, wouldn't eliminate them from qualifying - there are five games left after that - but it wouldn't exactly be putting the right foot forward. And that's something the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) has been trying desperately to do these past few years.
Call it a makeover, call it brand improvement, call it whatever you want but if you've noticed an uptick in interest in the Canadian national team, it is due in large part to a renewed effort to put Canadian soccer back on the map - beyond just the domestic club scene.
An increase in television presence, a coordinated grassroots effort to put Canadian butts in the seats at home games and a corporate Canada that is slowly but surely climbing on board are all signs that Canadian soccer is ready to turn a corner.
And if Canada, by some miracle, were able to qualify for Brazil 2014, with the purse money gained from just showing up, the CSA would instantly double its annual budget. The impact goes beyond that, especially in the corporate sector where winners are sponsored only so long as they're winning. And for a brand like Canadian soccer, which has been losing for so long, it would be a sign that they a viable brand again.
But, that's a long ways off still. For now, this round of qualification, which if they finish in the top two they advance on to a final group of six, is desperately important.
Simply put, what they need to do is win in Cuba. Not blame the heat, not blame the injuries, not blame the coaching - flat out win. The Canadians must go into a country that they know they should beat and get the result.
Otherwise, the party is going to come to a pretty quick end and it will be time to kick people out.
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