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Soccer Men’s head coach Benito Floro sees light at end of Canadian soccer tunnel

Canadian men's soccer coach Benito Floro, left, watches the action on Sept. 4 at Canadian training camp in Alliston, Ont.


Perched on scaffolding overlooking a practice field, Benito Floro surveys the Canadian men's soccer team alongside video co-ordinator Claudio Castro.

Sunglasses and a baseball cap worn at a jaunty angle protect him from the bright sunshine. And perhaps from the breeze created by hands whirling over what's happening on the pitch below.

The 62-year-old Spanish coach, who has been at the Canadian helm for a little more than a year, is passionate about his soccer.

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"You can see how he treats football. It's like art," said veteran Canadian midfielder Julian De Guzman, who played in Spain for Deportivo La Coruna. "That's something I've experienced with a lot of La Liga coaches and the culture in Spain. It's great to see that here in Canada.

"I wish I had this type of training from (a) young (age). And it's good to see the new generation being a part of this."

De Guzman can earn his 72nd cap Tuesday as Canada entertains Jamaica in an international friendly at BMO Field. It marks Floro's first game as coach on Canadian soil.

Floro's resume is impressive. He managed Real Madrid from 1992 to 1994 and served as director of football at the Spanish powerhouse in 2006. He has managed club sides in Spain, Ecuador, Japan, Mexico and Morocco, served as a TV analyst and was a member of FIFA's technical group at the 2012 Club World Cup.

Progress with Canada is slow, however. Floro inherited a battered and bruised program with some players still scarred from the humiliating 8-1 defeat in Honduras in 2012, the Canadians' last World Cup qualifying campaign.

Canada entered the hostile confines of a soldout Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula knowing that a tie or win would be enough to move on to the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The Hondurans needed a win. And got it in spectacular style at the expense of the Canadians.

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Asked if he still thought of the Honduras debacle, midfielder Atiba Hutchinson grimaced.

"I think about it maybe a little too much," the 67-cap veteran said with a laugh. "It's something that I think will always be in probably the back of everybody's head ... No matter how you try to not think about it, it's obviously something that will be there."

The challenges are immense for Floro.

He took over a team ranked 88th in the world and 10th in CONCACAF. Today Canada is No. 122 and ninth in CONCACAF.

Canada is mired in a 16-game winless streak that dates back to October 2012 and searching for its first win in seven games under Floro's leadership. His two outings were 1-1 ties with Moldova and Bulgaria. Canada's last win was a 3-0 decision over Cuba towards the end of its failed World Cup qualifying campaign almost two years ago.

Floro says his team always plays to win, but adds he has spent the last year shaping and teaching his squad.

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"When my team doesn't win the game, I am upset," he said in English. "Not with the players, because my players always fight a lot. (With) the result."

Under Floro, Canada has lost to Mauritania, Australia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia and tied Mauritania, Bulgaria and Moldova. The team has been outscored 9-2 with Hutchinson's goal from the penalty spot against Bulgaria in May ending a 10-game 959-minute scoring drought.

Floro believes Jamaica, ranked 85th in the world, will be a good test although his task has been made more difficult by some knocks that have kept some players off the practice field.

All eyes are on next summer's Gold Cup, the CONCACAF championship, with the goal of improving Canada's world ranking and so escaping extra rounds of World Cup qualifying.

Floro says he's optimistic and sees progress.

Since taking over, Floro has essentially taken the Canadian team back to school while auditioning as much talent as possible.

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The team has been holding two-a-day sessions at its training camp about an hour north of Toronto, with plenty of video classroom work. Floro likes to use animated game simulations to make his point.

On the field, training is precise and focused. Floro makes his point from on high, bringing individual players over to offer instruction or encouragement.

"He's almost like a perfectionist," said the 31-year-old Hutchinson, who has played under seven national team managers since making his senior debut in 2003. "He wants things done in a certain way. He'll really make sure he's get it through to the players to make sure we go out there and implement that."

Floro even has hand signals for set plays like throws-in.

Floro has used a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-2 formation with Canada but looks to turn the squad into one that can change strategy as needed depending on the opposition or nature of the game.

"A game is a fight," said Floro. "Sometimes we are the protagonist. Sometimes the protagonist is the other team ... we need to know what to do each time."

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English remains his third language, behind Spanish and French, but Floro's self-taught grasp of the language has improved greatly since taking over. He conducts interviews in English, with occasional help from an interpreter. While there are occasional stumbles, he can communicate. And his charisma shines through.

Floro is positive about the level of play in MLS and is impressed by the quality of coaching. "Real good," he said.

He is less happy about how soccer has become a business worldwide, with agents and mega-contracts. Floro is old-school, a purist who savours the link between a soccer team and its supporters. Business gets in the way of that.

He also looks at the last World Cup and sees a game that has become "stuck." In his view, coaches have come up with good defence but not very good offence with only a few top-quality players able to bring their own creativity to attack.

"The World Cup, for me, (was) normal," he said. "Nothing special."

"For me the conclusion is soccer is stuck because coaches don't pay attention to (a) creative, collective combined attack."

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A native of Valencia, Floro is now based in Toronto. He says he likes living in Canada, talking up Vancouver and Montreal as well as Toronto, although he misses friends and family.

The good news is his son, Antonio Floro, serves as one of his assistant coaches.

Benito's contract includes several options and could run through the next two World Cup qualifying rounds — for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

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