Canadian coach Stephen Hart finally gets to see his World Cup qualifying road map this weekend.
The qualifying draw for the 2014 soccer showcase will be held Saturday in Rio de Janeiro with hopefuls from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Some 203 countries have entered the competition — only Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Guam, Mauritania and host Brazil will not take part — and a few have already exited.
Qualifying will last two years five months, from June 15, 2011, to Nov. 19, 2013 and FIFA says it will take 824 matches to decide which 31 teams survive to play in Brazil from June 12 to July 13, 2014.
Hart, who will be at Saturday's draw at the Marina da Gloria, can't wait to get going — although he wouldn't have minded being one of the six CONCACAF teams to skip the first two rounds of qualifying in the region.
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But those six were determined by the March FIFA rankings.
Canada will begin play soon enough. It enters the CONCACAF qualifying in the round slated to run Sept. 2 to Nov. 15.
That means little time for preparation or venue choices. Hart and his players have been waiting for a hint of what lies ahead.
"They're eager to find out what's going on, like everybody else," the coach said. "It's unfortunate we have to wait this long.
"You basically will have one month to get everything in order."
CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, gets three berths at the World Cup finals with a fourth team facing a playoff to get to Brazil.
With the U.S. and Mexico having been at every World Cup since 1994, there is little room for anyone else in CONCACAF.
Canada has made it to the finals just once — in 1986 when it lost all three games and failed to score.
If Canada gets there this time, it will have to do it the hard way — the Canadian men will have to survive three rounds and 22 games.
FIFA did not exactly issue a vote of confidence Wednesday with the new world rankings. Canada plummeted 22 places to stand 105th overall and 10th in CONCACAF.
Canada enters the CONCACAF competition in the second of four rounds. That stage sees 24 teams split into groups of four with only the six group winners advancing to the next round.
The Bahamas, Belize, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, and U.S. Virgin Islands have already advanced from the first round.
Under the rules of the draw, Canada will be separated from No. 65 Panama, No. 78 El Salvador, No. 88 Trinidad and Tobago, No. 117 Haiti, and No. 120 Grenada in determining the second-round pools.
But it could find itself in the same group as Guatemala, which Hart sees as far more dangerous than its ranking of No. 115 would suggest.
"You have to play whatever comes up," Hart said of the draw. "Guatemala could be very tricky. … I think everybody would prefer to not be in a situation where they have to play Guatemala."
Other teams Canada could face are better known as holiday destinations than soccer powerhouses: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Curacao, Dominica, Guyana, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and Nevis, Nicaragua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Suriname.
Mexico (No. 20), the U.S. (No. 30), Jamaica (No. 44), Honduras (No. 51), Costa Rica (No. 56) and Panama (No. 65) have earned byes to the third round.
They will join the six group winners from the second round. The 12 teams will be placed in three pools with third-round matches to be played from June 8 to Oct. 16, 2012.
The three pool winners and runners-up then move on to the final round of qualifying, scheduled from Feb. 6 to Oct. 15, 2013. That will determine the three CONCACAF teams headed to Brazil and the country bidding to join them via playoff.
For the first time, that playoff setup will be part of the preliminary draw. The fourth-place CONCACAF team will play a side from Asia, Oceania or South America.