In a corridor under the stands at the decrepit Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, a numb Stephen Hart refused to make excuses after watching Canada implode in a shocking 8-1 loss to Honduras.
His team was well-prepared. The heat was not a factor. His players were all professionals.
Reminded that he was not on the field during the debacle, Hart paused and said simply: “But it’s my responsibility.”
Hart, 52, lived up to that credo two days later by handing in his resignation as national men’s soccer coach.
“He’s a good football man. He’s a good man, period,” Victor Montagliani, president of the Canadian Soccer Association, said in a conference call announcing the news Thursday.
“This game is a beautiful game but at time it can be cruel,” he added. “And I think we all know what needed to happen.”
Hart’s record as coach was 20-15-10 in various stints from 2006 to 2012, ranking him second in wins and first in win percentage among Canadian coaches.
The resignation will not be welcomed by the majority of Hart’s players, who regarded their laidback coach with respect and affection.
“The disaster in Honduras had nothing to do with coaching or tactics,” said veteran fullback Ante Jazic, who missed Tuesday’s game through illness. “We were well prepared for that.
“Ultimately with that result, that scorelines, heads were going to roll. But we the players have to take full responsibility with that performance. We were well prepared, knew what they were going to do.
“So that comes down to us. Unfortunately Stephen’s a proud man and he felt the need to resign.”
Hart worked his way through the CSA coaching ranks and had several stints as interim coach of the men’s team before getting the job for good in December 2009.
At that time, the Halifax resident said qualifying for the World Cup was Job 1.
“I want to make it clear that it will be our objective to focus on the CONCACAF qualifications in 2012,” Hart said upon getting the job.
Almost three years later, that journey came to a crashing, premature halt in San Pedro Sula. And Hart had no answers for why his players failed to answer the bell for Canada’s biggest game in 15 years.
The failure was all the more galling in that Canada’s fate was in its own hands. And that Hart’s talent pool, while small and missing the injured Dwayne De Rosaio and Josh Simpson and suspended Olivier Occean, was one of Canada’s most promising in recent years.
Canada needed just a tie or win in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Instead, Hart’s team suffered the worst defeat by a Canadian men’s side since an 8-0 shellacking in Mexico in 1993.
Canada has not qualified for the final round of qualifying in the regions since 1997, when it went 1-6-3 and finished last.
“There’s no sugar-coating here,” Montagliani said of Canada’s most recent qualifying exit. “It’s a big blow but we need to deal with it. And it’s an opportunity for us to deal with it in the right way.”
Hart said after Tuesday’s game he thought he had done his best in his job. But he understood that Canadian fans would not be able to forgive him.
On Thursday, he took matters into his own hands.
Hart’s resignation is effective immediately. He had six months left on his contract.
There is no interim head coach for the time being, said Montagliani, who did not have an immediate time frame for the hiring process.
The next coach does not have to be Canadian, he said, but suggested he better be battle-hardened to survive the darker side of CONCACAF.
“We will be looking for the best candidate for this program,” he said.
“Keeping in mind that one of the key ingredients is not just international experience but also having the understanding of what it means to compete in the environment we just experienced 48 hours ago, which are significantly different that standing on other sidelines in other places in the world where you have to qualify for World Cups.”
Whoever it is will inherit a team destined to drop from No. 61 in the FIFA rankings and one that has few meaningful matches in its future other than the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Hart and captain Kevin McKenna both said the moment had got to the team in Honduras.
Montagliani, elected president in May, said the program will have to find a way to competing in the hostile confines of Central America.
“Because it obviously is a psychological barrier which has existed for a long time in this program. It’s not just this group of players, but obviously the result speak for themselves.”
“I’m not sure if we’ve ever addressed it in the proper fashion,” he added.
One way is to increase the exposure of age-group teams to such environments, he said. Another is to expand the ties with academy players in Canada’s MLS clubs.
Montagliani said the CSA’s new technical director, expected on board by the end of the month, should be able to help devise other ways.
One could argue the real problem is Canada’s lack of experience in playing in games that matter, given its lacklustre pedigree.
The CSA president acknowledged that he and others had thought that many issues in the men’s program had been sorted previously, from accommodation to travel.
“We tried everything we could to create the (best) environment possible where everybody was comfortable to try to succeed,” he said. “And we will continue that.”
Coaching development in Canada is another pressing issue, he said.
“We put our players behind the eight-ball when they come into our national program at the age 14 or 15 because they haven’t been given the prop skill-set technically to deal with the game,” Montagliani said. “That all comes from the lack of proper coaching at that young age group.”
Asked if he had a message for the players on the pitch Tuesday, Montagliani said some players had apologized for their performance.
“I think most players know when they haven’t performed and our players are no different.”
Montagliani said he was still at a loss for words to describe his feelings watching the game in Honduras, other to say he never wanted to live through such an experience again.
He took some solace from the association’s dealing with the women’s program in the wake of their 2011 World Cup debacle.
“We acted quickly and we got that right,” he said. “We will act accordingly with this program.”
The president said despite the setback in San Pedro Sula, it’s no time to retrench.
“It’s a time to step forward. I know how difficult that is, because we’re all feeling it. But we can’t lose the momentum here. There’s too many things that people have been working on, a lot of positive things ... We need to push through.”
Hart, then under-17 coach and assistant coach with the senior side, first took over as interim coach in July 2006 after Frank Yallop resigned to take over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Hart, who has also served as the CSA’s technical director, was named interim coach again in April 2009 after Dale Mitchell was fired following Canada’s exit from World Cup qualifying with a dismal 0-4-2 record.
Hart had been a candidate for the job given to Mitchell.
Hart also served as interim coach at the 2007 Gold Cup when Mitchell was coaching the national under-20 team at the world championships.
Hart led Canada to the semifinals of the CONCACAF championship in 2007 and the quarter-finals in 2009. Canada failed to make it out of the group stage in 2011.
A native of Trinidad and Tobago, he played for Texaco in Trinidad’s National Football League and the San Fernando Strikers in the local Premier League.
In 1980 he was selected to the Trinidad and Tobago national team. Later that year he moved to Canada to attend Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
Hart’s close ties with his players were shown when he arrived at the team hotel Sunday with the team. Late call-up Lucas Cavallini was in the lobby, having already made an overnight flight from Montevideo to San Pedro Sula via Miami.
A smiling Hart saw Cavallini and welcomed him with a big hug.
“For myself and the majority of players, we all had great relationships with Stephen,” said the 36-year-old Jazic, who has been fighting a sinus and ear infection. “He was very approachable, a great communicator, knew his craft, respected the players.
“He was a perfect manager for a national team.”
Asked last week whether he felt the pressure of crucial World Cup qualifying games, Hart just smiled.
“You know what, I’m happy to be in football,” he answered. “Stress is having to worry about feeding your family every single day and wars around you. That’s stress.”