Canada takes step in right direction with win over Cuba | Soccer | CBC Sports

SoccerCanada takes step in right direction with win over Cuba

Posted: Saturday, June 9, 2012 | 09:48 AM

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Canada's players celebrate after Olivier Occean scored against Cuba during the 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer game in Havana, Cuba, Friday June 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes) Canada's players celebrate after Olivier Occean scored against Cuba during the 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer game in Havana, Cuba, Friday June 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

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Canada didn't concede to a lesser opponent. They held their ground, took the lead and even when goalie Lars Herschfield took a brainless red card for handling the ball outside the box, they didn't collapse and went on to beat the Cuban national team in the opening game of the second round of World Cup qualifying.

In the dusty streets of Old Havana there are signs everywhere that in a decidedly baseball-first country, soccer is grabbing a foothold.

Not far from the cafe where Ernest Hemingway sat and wrote his Old Man and the Sea, young kids and their ball play pickup games in the streets. They wear Real Madrid and Barcelona jerseys and chatter about who is better - Ronaldo or Messi.

In a lot of ways the two countries - Canada and Cuba - mirror each other in their place in the soccer world. Both are seeing the rise of the sport among a people whose first choice is something other than soccer. Canada perhaps is 10 years ahead of Cuba. Where, in the Cuban stadium, Manchester United and other English Premiership jerseys dominate, Canadian stadiums are starting to show an appreciation and understanding of what it means to support a national football team.

Canada of course is - or should be - much further along in that development. It has the big modern stadiums - one, that to Cuban eyes, would look like Barcelona's Camp Nou - and a soccer infrastructure that, while still in its infancy, is still well ahead of Cuba's.

That is why, on Friday in Havana, it was so confusing to watch as the Canadian side struggled to beat the Cuban national team in the opening game of the second round of World Cup qualifying. Cuba, who is realistically not in Canada's league, deserves full value for its effort, as it took it to Canada for the first 45 minutes. The Canadians looked scared to move the ball forward in those opening minutes and Canada, in front of a boistrerous crowd, threatened early.

But then something amazing happened - shocking even - Canada didn't concede to a lesser opponent. They held their ground, took the lead and even when their goalie Lars Herschfield took a brainless red card for handling the ball outside the box, they didn't collapse the way so
many Canadian teams before them have.

Canadian soccer, you understand, has built a bit of a reputation these past few years for playing down to their opponents. They did it in the last round of qualifying. They have been doing it off and on since the semi-final success of the 2007 Gold Cup.

So, when in the 35C heat, amid a hostile stadium, with a man down, that Canada didn't concede the equalizer late, it left the 100 or so Canuck fans in attendance a little baffled.

They left the Cuban stadium in a drunken daze, handing their scarves and shirts off to the Cuban fans who asked. It was part mob scene, as underprivileged hands reached for tradeable goods. It was part a graceful Canadian football nation, sharing their success with a lesser team's fans.

It is far too early to call this a turning point moment. What this was today was a Canadian side, who has perpetually played down to their opponents, doing what they needed to against the weaker side. And it won't be remembered as any kind of watershed moment either. It is,
however, a small step forward for a program that has struggled to get any kind of traction in recent years.

There will always be those who look for the game's defining moments - analysis that will peg the direction this team is headed - but that will have to wait until Tuesday, when they face Honduras at home.

Canada has now shown that they are capable of not playing down to their opposition. It is time to see if they can punch above their weight.

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