Two years ago, the Canadian men’s national team travelled to Buenos Aires to play what amounted to a meaningless exhibition match against a World Cup-bound Argentina squad.
The planet’s best player was rested for the match, but even without Lionel Messi the two-time world champions still had more than enough firepower and class in the shape of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain to overwhelm manager Stephen Hart’s team 5-0, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
Rather than be chastened by the experience, the Canadian players chose to look on the bright side, talking of the benefits to be derived from such a lesson. Canadian captain Paul Stalteri chose to talk things up further, suggesting it came at the perfect time with his team about to enter its next World Cup qualifying campaign: “I think [Argentina’s] chances came from our mistakes and I think that’s what we need to tidy up to set ourselves up for qualifying.”
Two years later, that qualifying cycle has come and gone, another opportunity to really advance the sport in the country gone the same way as every other since 1986, when Canada made its one and only appearance at the biggest festival in sport.
Have those lessons handed out that day in Buenos Aires been heeded? Hardly.
Based on a 8-1 rout Tuesday in a do-or-die clash in Honduras, when only a draw was needed to advance to the fourth and final round of World Cup qualifying, you could plausibly suggest that things have regressed still further. Despite fielding five of the players who featured in that thrashing against Argentina, Hart’s team seemed devoid of ideas, passion or even the ability to put up the most passive form of resistance to the coming waves of Honduran attacks.
Unfortunately for soccer in this country, the ripple effects from one of the most embarrassing days in the history of the Canadian men’s program could take years to play themselves out.
Getting to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil would have guaranteed the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) a much-needed $8-million to $9-million (U.S.), but while that goal would have remained a long shot even if Canada got a result on Tuesday, just reaching the last round of qualifying, or the Hex as it is known, would have given the CSA five more competitive – that is, marketable – home fixtures against the likes of the United States and Mexico.
Reaching the Hex would have also reinforced the head of steam built up by the sport in the Olympics last summer by the women’s team – a good example for the men to follow in terms of playing with pride in your country’s colours – and bridged the gap between now and the 2014 men’s World Cup and the women’s equivalent set to be played in Canada in 2015.
The chance to improve the core talent base of the men’s team has also likely disappeared like water under the bridge.
Reports heading into the match in San Pedro Sula once again stated that midfielder Julian de Guzman’s brother, Jonathan, who plies his trade in the English Premier League with Swansea, was ready to give up on the idea of playing for the Netherlands and commit to the country of his birth had Canada advanced to the Hex. But not only did Canada fail to do so, the flaccid display put forth will do little to make him rethink his position, and that same sentiment seems certain to apply to the other famous fence-sitters across the pond: Junior Hoilett of Queens Park Rangers (England) and Steven Vitoria of Estoril (Portugal).
If that wasn’t a gloomy enough proposition, Canada is almost certainly back to the drawing board when it comes to a vision for the men’s national team.
Hart’s position as coach is almost untenable after overseeing the program’s biggest defeat in 19 years. While he accepted responsibility for the lacklustre showing Tuesday, he knows this will hang over his head for a long time to come, and the World Cup in Russia in 2018 is an awfully long way off if he’s looking for redemption. Falling on his sword is not an unreasonable expectation, certainly given that a coach is expected to set the emotional tone for his team as well as providing motivation, both of which were lacking in Honduras. Hart is a polite, articulate and likeable man, but none of those qualities are key assets when it comes to winning soccer games.
If Hart goes, who would replace him? While it would be unlikely the CSA has the funds to duplicate the U.S. model and pay for a Jurgen Klinsmann, given the black hole the program now finds itself in, digging deep into the coffers to pay for an established name seems the only course of action.
But whoever comes in will encounter much the same problem Hart has dealt with for the past three years: a dearth of talent. While it appears easy to find plodders to pull on the national team shirt, finding game-breaking talent is another proposition altogether.
While the defence hardly played with aplomb Tuesday, it was striker Tosaint Ricketts who once again exposed Canada’s Achilles heel mere minutes into the game when he spurned a gilt-edged chance to put the visitors in front. Given the way the team played for the majority of the 90 minutes, it seems unlikely that scoring first would have prevented the floodgates from opening in the Canadian defence, but a little quality in front of goal would have rendered the result Tuesday immaterial anyway. After all, turning in just one of the many chances Canada generated at home against Honduras last June and Hart’s team would have booked its passage into the Hex with last its win last Friday over Cuba.
But Canada’s woeful finishing would have been exposed at the next stage, and unfortunately, solving that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving the fortunes of the Canadian men’s soccer team.
More talent needs to be unearthed, and to that end the academies at such Major League Soccer clubs as Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps will be valuable assets, but it’s been slim pickings so far in terms of producing quality players.
As TFC coach Paul Mariner has quickly discovered, Canadian prospects are quick to rest on their laurels, happy to muddle along playing in MLS instead of aiming for the stars and a one-way ticket to Europe’s big leagues.
Until they start trying to be the best, instead of contenting themselves at being merely average, Canada will never generate the sort of talent that’s going to be required to avoid thrashings in Argentina, Honduras or pretty much anywhere else that takes soccer seriously.