For the 75th ranked nation in the world and its supporters, the 2014 World Cup is seen as more than just a pipe dream, despite a bleak history.
As the international football community gears up for EURO 2012, most Canadians are on board with the rest of the world getting ready to support a European country to which they can claim some distant heritage. However, a minority of football fans within Canada is preparing for something much more personal, much closer to home and something for which the wait has been much longer.
These supporters are some of the brave few who opt to support a Canadian National Team that outside of a continental championship in 2000 and a World Cup appearance in 1986 has achieved almost nothing on the international level. Now Canada is about to embark on yet another quest to capture that elusive second World Cup appearance.
The Canadians eased through a preliminary round of World Cup Qualifying late last year and are now ready to face the dreaded “Third Stage” of the qualifying competition, a stage in which Canada has been eliminated at in all of the past three cycles. In fact over these past three cycles (Qualifying for the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups), Canada has only mustered two wins in the third round both of these coming after the team had been mathematically eliminated.
Yet Canadian supporters - mainly represented by a national supporters group called “The Voyageurs” - seem to be upbeat heading into this year’s third round being drawn into a group with Panama, Honduras and Cuba. The group is seen as one of the easiest that Canada has ever seen at this stage. They will face an aging Honduras team, a Panama squad that matches up fairly evenly with Canada’s, and a Cuban team that really struggled at last summer’s CONCACF Gold Cup.
The Voyageurs seem to draw upon a certain type of national pride almost unparalleled across the globe while supporting their national team. This does not come from loving their country more than any other supporters, or even from loving football more than any other supporters. It comes from having to deal with incredible dissent against the national team originating within Canada itself.
Most Canadians do not support the Canadian National Football Team. As ridiculous as it sounds most football fans within the country support nations to which they have some family ties or lineage and often go as far as to actively cheer against Canada.
In 2008 Canada played Honduras at home during a crucial qualifier for the 2010 World Cup. Honduran supporters who made up at least three-quarters of the attendance dominated the 13,000-seat stadium in Montreal. A small dedicated section of about 400 Voyageurs that evening found themselves pelted with rocks, attacked by Honduran fans and viciously taunted as Honduras ran out 2-1 winners essentially ending any Canadian hope of qualifying for the World Cup. Experiences like these are what propel the hardcore Canadian support to hold on and keep coming out to watch the national team because if they don’t, no one else will.
Canada’s World Cup Qualifying journey this time around will start down in Havana against Cuba (ironically on June 8th the same day EURO 2012 starts), with around fifty Canadians planning to make the trip to the small communist island. The match appears to be a relative mismatch with most of the Cubans playing domestically in a very weak Cuban League and Canada boasting several players with impressive overseas credentials such as Atiba Hutchinson playing in the Netherlands with PSV and Olivier Occean, this years leading scorer in 2. Bundesliga. However, Canada’s past experience playing away in CONCACAF will leave them taking nothing for granted.
Four days later the Canadian national team will return back to Canada to play Honduras – yet again – in Toronto. The crowd at Toronto’s BMO Field will likely be a pro-Honduran one, however the Voyageurs will be doing as much as possible to make the atmosphere “feel” like a positive one for Canada despite the actual numerical supporter breakdown.
So with the task of essentially playing six away games ahead of the team -assuming Canadian fans are outnumbered at all three of the their home matches – and a history of massive underachievement behind them, what are Canada’s real chances of not only making it to the World Cup, but just advancing to the final stage of qualifying?
Certainly no one is coming out with ridiculous guarantees from inside the training camp, but there is certainly a chance. Not a chance that anyone gambling a significant amount of money would be prone to take, but enough that around fifty supporters are feeling optimistic enough to make the lengthy trip down to Cuba.
Canada’s Trinidad and Tobago-born head coach, Stephen Hart, predicts that it will take twelve out of the available eighteen points to ensure qualification for the next round, although ten will probably be enough. Those ten points would most likely come in home wins against Panama and Cuba, coupled with an away win in Cuba and another point somewhere along the way. Nothing too out of the question, just something that would require the national team players to perform at the same level they do with their clubs instead of continuing the pattern of national team underachievement.
It has been four years since Canada’s exit at this stage in the last cycle, and the problems that plagued the team last time around have hopefully been fixed or at least improved, with a new coach, a new more possession-oriented style and a few new faces, but the task ahead of them, Mission 2014, presents a challenge that will require something a little special from a nation not used to getting that extra something special on the pitch.
So while most of the world’s eyes will be glued to EURO 2012 as some of football’s best face off against each other, a select group of dedicated Canadians will be distracted by supporting a national team that desperately needs support, and desperately needs something to celebrate.