Time to get serious



Canada Soccer needs to start taking its men’s World Cup preparation seriously.

As the outcry over the Iran friendly — since cancelled — revealed, the sport and the squad are under a national microscope befitting a World Cup participant, which means the governing body is being scrutinized like never before.

That’s a good thing, of course, even if Canada Soccer isn’t all that used to operating outside a vacuum.

Thanks to a favour from CONCACAF colleague Panama, the men’s national team will still have an adversary to face on Sunday (6 p.m., OneSoccer), although the match will nevertheless be played in the glare of the Iran debacle.

Should the three-time Asian Cup champions have been invited to Vancouver in the first place? No. But not for the reasons typically used to justify the shunning of a FIFA member, most of which tend to be on shaky moral ground.

There is no hard and fast set of rules that determine which nations are, or aren’t, decent enough to deserve the benevolence of a 90-minute exhibition. “Human rights” is often the pointed-to term, in which case prospective opponents will presumably be re-evaluating their relationships with countries among the world leaders in killing their own people, such as the United States.

Canada Soccer, in this instance, was justified in terminating the friendly. In January 2020, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which essentially controls Iranian football, shot down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, killing all 167 passengers, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.

Combine that tragedy with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and all the organization needed to do was read the room. That it didn’t, or that it lacked the geopolitical nous, is troubling, although it has vowed to do better. Fair enough.

All that said, there remain additional questions regarding World Cup planning that will hopefully be addressed as well. Foremost among them concerns the early-autumn and November international windows — specifically, how many tune-up matches will be scheduled, what their locations will be, and against whom.

Until the Panama friendly was arranged at the last minute, the Canadian men stood to take on just Curacao and Honduras this spring. Both are competitive CONCACAF Nations League matches (vs. Curacao: June 9, 9:30 p.m.; vs. Honduras: June 13, 9 p.m.; both on OneSoccer), but neither offers anything in the way of World Cup preparation.

Their Group F rivals, meanwhile, have booked considerably more meaningful programs.

Belgium, the No. 2-ranked team in the world, will play a full slate of UEFA Nations League games in the next two weeks, facing Poland twice and Wales after Friday’s showdown with The Netherlands. And Croatia will go up against Austria, Denmark and France twice.

Granted, it’s perhaps unfair to use Belgium and Croatia as measuring sticks when it comes to preparing for major tournaments, but Canada will have to at least draw one of them to have any hope of advancing beyond the group stage in Qatar.

The bracket’s other contestants, Morocco, flew to Cincinnati for a friendly against the United States on Wednesday — a friendly intended to prepare them for… Canada. They also have a pair of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers coming up in September.

Canada, by comparison, have an empty calendar between their trip to Honduras nine days from now and their World Cup opener against Belgium on Nov. 23. That needs to change, and fast. The quality of teams they set up their friendlies against needs to be adjusted as well.

This country hasn’t tested itself against a non-CONCACAF opponent since a January 2020 game with Iceland in Irvine, Calif. And it hasn’t ventured beyond the continent since beating New Zealand 1-0 in Spain more than four years ago.

Only three players from the side that started against the All Whites will be involved against Panama, Curacao and Honduras, and none of Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Stephen Eustaquio, Scott Kennedy and Alistair Johnston — key members of manager John Herdman’s core group — was even part of the set-up at the time.

In other words, the men’s national team as it is today — confident, electrifying and headed to its first World Cup since 1986 — have never travelled abroad. It’s a reality that needs to end at the final whistle in San Pedro Sula later this month. Canada shouldn’t play in the CONCACAF region again this calendar year.

September’s international break, which provides for two matches, is the perfect opportunity for Herdman to take his squad to Europe, or even a location on the Arabian Peninsula such as Dubai. And Canada Soccer should look to fill both matchdays — not one; both. At least one of them should be against a fellow World Cup participant.

Japan and South Korea are possibilities, so long as they’d be open to the journey west. Nations League and Cup of Nations commitments rule out European and African opponents, but Ecuador will already be in Spain in September and still have the 27th unfilled. In any event, there are options.

Then there is the World Cup window itself, for which players will be released from their clubs on November 14.

By that point, Canada will have a base camp in Qatar, and the sooner they secure it the better. Belgium has already reserved the luxurious facilities at Abu Samra, and Croatia changed its initial booking at the Dilsit to the Hilton Doha and its private beach — a decision they made within 24 hours.

Once they know where they’re staying, Canada can begin to really plan, and hopefully with the thoroughness the occasion demands.

They can also arrange at least one pre-tournament friendly, and ideally two, as they don’t commence their group stage campaign until Nov. 23. A European outfit such as Switzerland or Poland would be ideal for the first one, and for the second they could conceivably play a competitive, non-qualified country.

Algeria would provide good preparation for Morocco, and should they lose to Wales on Sunday a match against Ukraine would be quite special.

Canada’s men took this country on an extraordinary, unforgettable journey to World Cup qualification and their story shouldn’t end there.

This is a team that should not only be competitive in Qatar, but also a legitimate contender to advance from Group F — something heavy defeats for Belgium and Croatia on Friday will have seemed to make even more possible.

Canada Soccer must do everything in its power, and then endeavour to do even more, to ensure that the players are empowered to play their best football when it matters most.

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Twitter @JerradPeters