So imagine the excitement when Canada travels to a road World Cup qualifier against a non-minnow as betting favourites. As of this writing bet365 has Canada 11/10 favourites against El Salvador. Betfair is fractionally less generous at 21/20. Nobody needs to be reminded of Canada’s fine home victory against the still-decent Hondurans, while my scouts* tell me that Mexico absolutely humiliated El Salvador at the Azteca, pumping three goals past journeyman Henry Hernandez and looking unlucky not to do better.
El Salvador’s program is the biggest dumpster fire in CONCACAF, which is saying something. Many top players are on strike, outraged at corruption and poor treatment, demanding such decadent luxuries as hotel rooms with hot water. Seven of their players are first-time internationals, including 33-year-old midfielder Yuvini Salamanca. More are veterans with relatively limited experience for their country. Of their major players only Rafael Burgos, Nelson Bonilla, and Jaime Alas are present. They have even been reduced to calling up someone from FC Edmonton, winger Dustin Corea, who went 90 minutes wearing the #7 shirt in Mexico. Corea played for El Salvador at the Gold Cup but that was his first major run for his country; now he is a key man.
The fans are despondent. Ticket sales at the colossal Estadio Cuscatlán are appalling, with only 2,400 sold as of this morning. The major El Salvadoran supporters’ groups stand with their striking players and their boycott appears to largely have been honoured. An El Salvador fan joined the Voyageurs forum, which is traditional, and said Canada is going to beat the hell out of his country, which is not. Any chance of the notoriously powerful San Salvador crowd lifting their inexperienced underdogs to victory seems gone.
Are Canadians optimistic? Let’s ask the sports section of the Toronto Sun:
We know how this goes, right? Canada with a huge game it has absolutely every reason to win, its fans confident, while the opposing faithful who can be bring themselves to show up are struggling through the larceny of their federation and the indignity of months-long outrages. Of course it’s going to be a let-down. Of course it is. You think Canada is going to meet expectations and get six points out of six? How new are you?
The referee in El Salvador is Mark Geiger, who is a human dreidel, spinning and spinning and coming down who knows where. This is doubly dangerous. Junior Hoilett, our much-ballyhooed new acquisition, was diving all over BC Place. Backpasses from Adam Straith and Dejan Jakovic put Milan Borjan under a lot of pressure and led to collisions that incompetent referees could have called penalties. Benito Floro, perhaps underestimating the difficult physical conditions in CONCACAF, has tended to use largely the same starting eleven match after match in his tournaments so far. El Salvador is likely to rotate their squad and showed signs of saving their best horses in the unwinnable Azteca match. Burgos and Alas only played 45 minutes each on Tuesday, while Bonilla did not play at all. San Salvador is only a two-hour flight from Mexico City; Vancouver quite a bit further. And of course there are the other advantages of home field, apart from the crowd. The grass is reportedly terrible, though that didn’t stop Canada in Cuba. While Vancouver has spent the last week hovering a bit below ten degrees Celcius it is, as of this writing, 30 degrees in San Salvador at noon. It’ll be down to about 23 at kickoff but training in the heat is draining too.
Finally, Canada is still Canada. Cyle Larin’s bumble off his back was our first competitive goal against a “real” team since Iain Hume put the one in 8-1; that’s two full Gold Cups. In twenty matches since November 15, 2013, we have been shut out seven times and scored once another eight times. The offense has improved under Floro, with a three-goal spurt in the Jamaica friendly and respectable performances against Ghana and Iceland, and Hoilett has been dynamite, but that’s not enough for us to come in with swagger against any Central American team. It was only a couple months ago that we drew 1-1 in Belize and earned it.
This has a horrifying draw written all over it. We beat Honduras, and I still grin irrationally to think of it, but our scars take more healing than that.
Programming note: the game is being broadcast live in Canada on the premium channel beIN Sports, which is also available as a web service. The Canadian Soccer Association does not control broadcast rights to road World Cup qualifiers; these were sold by the El Salvadoran federation. If you don’t get beIN, follow @thevoyageurs on Twitter; they will be tweeting a list of viewing party locations.
* — i.e. those who remembered to PVR the game.