The Road to Russia doesn’t quite have the same ring to it that Road to Rio does. However, for the Canadian men the focus now has shifted from samba dancing and the Copacabana to Matryoshka dolls and Red Square.
More depressing than that are the dates, from next year to what seems like a lifetime away.
However, Canada cannot dwell on the past if it is to progress into the future. If you get bogged down with 27-years of failure now, you might as well shift your focus to the heat of Qatar (if that) and forget about 2018 as a possibility.
Many fans are already doing just that. A quick look at the young players in Canada right now does not lend itself to hope. That feeling of dread was amplified Saturday when a young Danish side bossed Canada around the pitch in this country’s first post 8-1 game, winning 4-0.
Last night’s dire 0-0 draw with the United States might have slightly dulled the pain, but most would likely view that as an American failure rather than a Canadian success.
However, international football is cruel in that it doesn’t give fans time to grieve. It just keeps rolling on and, as such, Canada must too.
So, the Road to Russia it is. Based on the early, tentative steps should Canadian fans have any hope? Were there positives from the just finished camp and two game series?
Sure. Maybe not enough to make one dream of an Eastern European vacation in five years time, but enough to prevent thoughts of giving up all together.
In an effort to get fans down from the ledge, here are three things to be hopeful about:
1 – Domestic bliss
Seven players in camp are currently playing for a Canadian professional team. An additional five have played a significant amount of time in Canada, either as a professional or in an elite development environment.
These are players that have been given an opportunity that no generation of Canadian has had since the 1970s. Not coincidently, the peak of Canada’s international performance came in the late 70s and early 80s, climaxing in Canada’s appearance at Mexico 86.
We are just now starting to see the benefit of the re-birth of top-level pro soccer in Canada. It will be a bit longer before results start to shift at the senior international level, but we’ve seen fruition at the youth levels already.
To that end the most interesting results to track this year will be at the U17 and U20 level, where Canada will attempt to qualify for the respective World Cups.
2 – Canadian pride
An important off-shoot of having these young Canadian players playing in Canada and developing here is that they are more likely to remember where they are from.
Would Jonathon de Guzman “feel Dutch” if he had played with Toronto-area’s Sigma Academy at 14, before moving on to a higher level? Would the Owen Hargreaves story had a different ending if he had shot through the youth ranks of the Vancouver Whitecaps?
It would be disingenuous to say with absolute certainty, but it’s reasonable to suggest that the likelihood is those players and others like them would have chosen to play for Canada. They would have developed bonds with the players that came through the system with them and would have remained in Canada during their formative years.
When you hear today’s young Canadian players talk you hear them speak about the pride they feel wearing the Maple Leaf. They’ve grown up as footballers believing that it’s an honour to play for their country, not an obligation.
It’s unclear whether the older generation of Canadian players have always felt that way.
3 – Changes at the top
When Canada lost in Honduras the instinct by many fans was to blame the CSA.
Old habits die hard and, bluntly, the CSA is to blame for a lot of the mess we’re in right now. However, it’s important to draw a distinction between the current leadership and those that were there in the dark days of the 90s and early 2000s.
The 8-1 result was not a reflection of the state of the CSA today, but rather of where it was 10 to 15 years ago when the majority of the players that made up the World Cup qualifying squad were coming through the system.
Today those that are in charge are trying to modernize the organization. They are aware of the shortcomings and are working to fix them.
It will never be fast enough for many, but the truth is there has been progress.
There is a commitment to fixing this and an understanding that doing so will take a long-term view.
You could see that yesterday when interim coach Colin Miller remained focused on giving all the players in the line-up a look, despite being one counter attack away from the first win over the United States in a generation.
There is a lot of work to do and, truthfully, 2018 is a stretch. However, the time for dwelling on the past is over.
Onward to Russia we must roll.