Stephen Hart expects the pitch at Havana’s Estadio Pedro Marrero to be as tough an opponent as the Cuban side his team is facing.
In fact, the head coach of the Canadian men’s soccer team says the field will be the ”biggest thing to overcome“ for his players when they take on Cuba in World Cup qualifying Friday.
“The heat, there’s nothing you can do about that just like there’s nothing you can do about the pitch,” Hart said Thursday on a conference call. “You just have to be mentally strong, you have to adapt, you have to endure and overcome it.”
Hart described the grass at the multi-purpose Cuban stadium as “very thick, very heavy and very long” and unlikely to be trimmed before the afternoon match.
“It’s the traditional grass of the Caribbean. Nothing that we didn’t expect,” Hart said. “Every single country presents a different challenge in that respect.”
The two countries have only once appeared in the World Cup finals — Canada in 1986 and Cuba in 1938.
Canada comes into its first semifinal game with a string of victories over several Caribbean squads. It won 3-0 over Puerto Rico, 7-0 against St. Lucia and 4-0 versus St. Kitts and Nevis.
Canada is also coming off a friendly against the U.S., the heavyweights in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. They played to a 0-0 draw Sunday at BMO Field in Canada’s only game with its full side this year.
Despite the lack of scoring in the match, Hart isn’t about to change his tactics.
“You have to ask if throwing on more attackers is going to give you goals,” said Hart. “I don’t think throwing on a bunch of attackers will make a difference. In football, everything is about the balance.”
The match pits the two lowest-ranked teams in Group C against each other, so both sides see it as a chance to win. Panama and Honduras are also in the group.
Cuba arrived directly at the semifinals without having to play in preliminary rounds.
“We’re playing at home against the team that seems to be the weakest in the group,” said Cuban forward Alain Cervantes. “We have to take advantage and open with a victory if we want to reach what every football player dreams of.”
The 145th-ranked Cuba is at the bottom of the CONCACAF’s Group C over the qualifiers. Canada is 77th in the FIFA rankings.
Canada will be looking for strong performance from forward Dwayne De Rosario of MLS club DC United, defender Kevin McKenna and the 17-year-old newcomer Samuel Piette.
Atiba Hutchinson, who is suffering from a knee injury, travelled to Cuba with the team but Hart wouldn’t commit to using the midlfielder.
“(Hutchinson) has looked good in training but match fitness is a big question mark,” said Hart.
He added that Friday’s roster will show very little change from the team who played against the Americans.
Cuba and Canada played four times before during the World Cup qualifying in 1998 and 2002. Canada has three wins and Cuba has none. One of their previous meetings ended in a draw.
The four teams in Group C that includes Panama and Honduras play each other home and away during round-robin qualifying.