To the casual observer, the NHL lockout couldn’t have come at a better time for the Canadian men’s national soccer team.
Potentially a dozen games from Brazil, and this country’s second berth at the World Cup finals, Canada heads into a make-or-break five days, beginning Friday night with a home encounter against Cuba at Toronto’s BMO Field.
For a nation that has traditionally been found wanting when it comes to capitalizing on home-field advantage – in soccer at least – the possibility of converting a few lost hockey souls into even part-time purveyors of the round-ball religion sounds too good to be true. But if nearly three years in his job has taught him nothing else, Stephen Hart is a realist.
“The odd sports fan would obviously take a peek and see what’s going on and maybe come to the event because it’s an event, but we have some hard-core fans and we’re really grateful for them,” said the Trinidad-born head coach, mindful of the fact that Canada’s last seven home games have drawn crowds of 10,000 and upward. “They push us on every level and sometimes they might not like what you do – there’s 15, 16, 20,000 people in the stadium and the only person who doesn’t know anything about the game is the coach – but I think it’s fair and it’s all in good fun and hopefully we can make them smile.”
A win Friday and avoidance of defeat Tuesday in Honduras, depending on its result Friday at group-leading Panama, is likely to be enough to induce the aforementioned ear-to-ear grin.
The games may also mean a place in the last six of the CONCACAF region’s qualifying tournament – rarefied air that Canada hasn’t tasted since its failed attempt to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. For the 52-year-old Hart, a man in his first World Cup qualifying cycle as head coach, this might be as close as he gets. He doesn’t see himself doing the same thing in 10 years time.
“No, not really,” Hart said bluntly. “I would like to do the best I can and take the team as far as I can but I really don’t look any further than the planning of the so-called program that’s ahead of me, I’ve never really done that and I just take things as they come. Maybe that’s my background.”
Having studied both Brazilian coaching legend Tele Santana and the immortal Johan Cruyff on his rise to the top of his craft, Hart will know more than most about the importance of taking the opportunities put in front of you. Santana presided over the 1982 Brazilian World Cup team – arguably the greatest collection of talent never to win the tournament – while Cruyff’s 1974 Dutch squad is never too far behind in that debate.
Hart’s own moment is now, and for the players who go into battle for him – to a man full of praise for Hart’s ability in the oft-forgotten art of communication – getting to the next round, or the Hex as it is commonly known, should be the least of their ambitions.
“Absolutely, it’s paramount for us to get to the Hex,” said defender Ante Jazic, who grew up playing for Hart in his native Nova Scotia at the youth level. “We have a great generation, this team’s been together for a long time and for a lot of the guys it’s their last kick at the can.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that we have the team to qualify for the next round – we have the team to qualify for the World Cup, quite frankly – but these next two matches are pivotal for Canadian soccer, especially for the men’s program.”
Unlike Brazil and the Netherlands, though, Hart doesn’t have a huge pool of talent at his disposal. While he emphasizes a possession-based game, characterized by short, quick passes, results speak louder than words, as anyone familiar with the dwindling support for BMO Field’s other tenant, Toronto FC, will tell you. As such, the value of just getting to the World Cup, even if it involves hoofing the ball up the park to hold out for a goal-less draw in next Tuesday’s trip to Honduras, cannot be understated.
“Canada, we’re such a small country really,” Hart said. “People talk about we have a million players. We don’t have a million players, we have a million people that play soccer, but in reality our numbers are small in every respect. So it would be fantastic for the country, it would be fantastic for all the youth programs and hopefully it would be fantastic in the areas in which we need a lot of support, which is financial.”
Having Bell Canada sign on as a Canadian Soccer Association sponsor on Wednesday will help, but even that will pale in comparison with the riches awaiting the CSA should Hart’s men find their way to Rio in two years time.