Most UNBC students have yet to see Canada play a single match in the World Cup Finals. Canada’s national team has qualified to soccer’s grandest stage only once (in 1986, where they lost to France, Hungary, and the Soviet Union without scoring a single goal), yet recently the tide seemed to be changing. Qualification for the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil has been underway for over a year, and Canada had been performing admirably – easily breezing past Puerto Rico, St. Kitts and St. Lucia in the first of three stages last fall, and starting their second stage up spectacularly with a road victory over Cuba in Havana. After a second win over Cuba at home, a draw against Honduras, and a split of two games with Panama, Canada found themselves a draw or win away from the final stage of World Cup qualifications – a group of six teams, colloquially known as “The Hex” – where three guaranteed tickets to Brazil were stamped, and a fourth just a win (against New Zealand) away from joining the party.
Canadian hopes were high going into the game, and why not? Our national team had heavily outplayed Honduras in Toronto, and by all accounts only a lack of finishing prevented the team from scoring on multiple chances. The first game against the Hondurans ended in a 0-0 draw in Toronto, and the same result repeated in San Pedro Sula would see Canada through. Head Coach Stephen Hart was widely quoted on arrival in Honduras saying “the most dangerous thing you can tell a team is they need a draw,” so clearly the coaching staff had the team’s best mindset planned out. The team would attack, the team would defend, and the team would advance.
But then came the kickoff. It began well enough for Canada – in the second minute a cross into the box found striker Tosaint Ricketts with an open net, a simple volley away from silencing the boisterous Honduran home crowd. Ricketts couldn’t control the pass, though, and the chance was defused. The wheels fell off shortly thereafter.
Honduras came in waves, and the Canadians were overmatched. The defence remained pedestrian as attack after attack was feebly defended or not defended at all. Thirty minutes later, it was over – the scoreboard may only have ticked 34 minutes off a 90 minute clock, but it also read Honduras 4, Canada 0. After another excruciating, embarrassing hour of Canadian soccer, the game mercifully ended, 8-1. Suddenly, the best Canadian side in years was once again in the same failed heap as the others: humiliated by a tiny yet passionate Central American nation, reduced to World Cup spectators.
Media and fans will move on quickly – at halftime of the game, Sportsnet was already plugging future broadcasts of England’s own World Cup qualification bid – and herein lies the problem with the state of the game in Canada. Compare the scene in our country to that of Honduras: rather unluckily, the game against Canada fell one day after a Honduran national holiday, but the country’s administration was nonplussed – they simply added an extra day to their holiday, ensuring most of the country had the day off work and was able to watch their national team play. Conversely, we host matches against Jamaica in Toronto that feature just as many people cheering against the country they live in as there are supporting our own. The World Cup is the premier sporting event worldwide, but only those following the progress of our qualifications religiously for the past year would even have known about our biggest game in decades more than a day or so in advance.
Watching Canada concede goal after goal after goal to Honduras, ending a World Cup dream I thought would come true for the first time in my life, the prevailing emotion was disappointment. While our players, especially on defence, showed an incredible lack of effort when it mattered most, the disappointment wasn’t truly directed at them – it was at the state of soccer in Canada. If it was our supporters gathered en masse outside a visiting team’s hotel the night before a game, making enough noise to prevent them from sleeping; if it was us cheering passionately for the country we live in, and not for the country our grandparents grew up in; if the game that could have sent us to Brazil was an event, even if only on Facebook, I have to believe it could have ended differently.