Newcomers to the duty of supporting Canada’s national men’s soccer team will have been introduced to the way away matches were accessed in the late 20th century and early aughts as Canada secured a spot in the next round of World Cup qualifying with a 1-1 draw against Belize.
The Canadian Soccer Association was unable to setup a live internet stream from FFB stadium in Belmopan due to its weak internet signal, which meant those who wanted to follow along had to tune into a stream provided by Belize’s Channel Five. This equally turned into a curse and a blessing. A curse, because the video quality made the match look like a qualifying tilt for World Cup West Germany ’74, with intermittent blue screens, tracking issues and the sense that someone needed to shift the antenna on the roof a few inches; a blessing, because Canada got to experience the match description from Belize Channel Five’s Mad Bull and Maestro, a commentary duo that put Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson to shame.
The Belizean accent sounds like a cross between Jamaica and Creole. Mad Bull and Maestro were homers to be sure, but instead of angering Canadian viewers with their bias, the colourful pair charmed with their hopes, encouragements and frustrations. The two traded off play-by-play duties in the manner of some Mexican broadcasts as they described the match, unabashed in their belief that Belize could score the four goals needed to defeat Canada and advance to the next round of qualifying.
The endlessly entertaining commentary distracted viewers from the fact that Canada’s performance was a train wreck. Canada head coach Benito Floro rolled out a largely unchanged starting XI from Friday night’s match in Toronto, with the exception of Milan Borjan starting in goal instead of Kenny Stamatopoulos, and Samuel Piette in place of the injured Julian de Guzman. It would have been reasonable to expect a similar performance to Friday night’s domination of Belize, but the Jaguars had other ideas.
Belize came out with the kind of energy and, it should be said, recklessness, that was never on display Friday night. This seemed to surprise the Canadian team, which struggled to cope with the pace and reckless abandon offered by their opponents. Where Canada had all the time in the world on the ball in the home leg, Belize’s men harried Canada into mistakes throughout Tuesday night’s match, much to the delight of Mad Bull who at one point exclaimed: “Jaguars go on the attack as they see something inside the jungle.” It sure did seem at times like Canada was the prey, not the predator.
Belize took an early lead that tempered the jokes taking place on the #CanMNT Twitter feed. Belize forward Deon McCaulay opened the scoring in the 26th minute on a play that should have been snuffed out by David Edgar and Adam Straith, but having failed to deal with the speed of the attack allowed the Hankook Real Verdes man to strike the ball off the post and past an outstretched Milan Borjan.
Canada managed to get their act together long enough just before halftime to equalize. Cyle Larin drew the attention of no less than three Jaguars on a long, looping throw into the Belize box, and when the ball bounced out to Will Johnson at the top of the 18-yard box he carefully placed a shot into the corner of the goal.
The way Belize and Canada played in the first half called for an adjustment in viewers’ expectations. Those wanting Canada to wallop a weaker opponent were clearly going to be disappointed. Based on how the match progressed, it was clear Canada was simply trying to escape Belmopan unscathed.
Eventually, the Jaguars tired from all the high pressing they had performed, and Canada was given plenty of time on the ball. Instead of pressing forward and risking getting beat on the counter, Canada was satisfied with passing the ball around the pitch and further tiring out their opponent, much to Maestro’s lament who exclaimed: “Canada passing da ball around, dey don’t want no trouble.”
The 1-1 scoreline would stick, and so Canada achieved their goal of advancing to the next round of qualifying. The next round is a group stage with three other teams: Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. Clearly, Canadian fans will not be afforded the luxury of “enjoying” the relaxed spirit in which they watched the Belize series. This is a group made up of a world superpower (Mexico), a hated rival (Honduras) and a team who just recently drew Canada 0-0 in the Gold Cup (El Salvador). Each team will face each other in a home and away round robin, with the top two teams advancing to the final six-team group, known as the Hexagonal (or, as everyone refers to it: The Hex).
Belize gave Canada a lot to think about ahead of this next stage of qualifying. Floro will have to devise a better way to deal with teams that offer speed as their main weapon, along with coping with opponents of much higher technical skill. Hostile away environments will also be the order of the day, and the players will need to be prepared mentally for these circumstances.
I’d say I’m looking forward to the next round, and I am, but only because it represents the next step in qualification for Russia 2018. In truth, the nature of this next round is one where we won’t be expected to advance, and taking down Honduras or El Salvador is going to be a challenge that is perhaps beyond what we’ve recently seen from Floro’s Canada. But who knows, we have two months to convince ourselves otherwise.
I leave you with this gem from last night, an advertisement during Belize Channel Five’s coverage of the match:
Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer.