Olivier Occean: Canadian underachiever until he's a Canadian hero. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
I've spent the past eternity in Cuba, out of civilization, out of democracy, out of sobriety, and out of Internet access. The reason for this irresponsible and dictator-baiting trip to the Caribbean was, of course, that Canada was playing Cuba in its first World Cup qualifier of 2012 last Friday.
The game wasn't pretty. (Neither was the pitch, or the stadium, or the country.) I spent ninety minutes clenching so tightly in terror I threatened to pull the building down. But in the end, Olivier Occean's Emmanuel Gomez-style header into the top corner past Cuban goalkeeper Odisnel Cooper held up, and Lars Hirschfeld's ill-omened sortie against Dalain Aira turned out to just be an unfortunate highlight rather than an actual catastrophe.
It was a decent performance, wasn't it? Against a flopping team on a gruesome surface (why can't the Cubans get modern artificial turf like a civilized country?) in heat and humidity which, on the spot, felt like over 40 degrees Celcius, and then the veteran keeper gets sent off with over twenty minutes to go... and actually, after Hirschfeld's end, Marcel Hernández's free kick to Antigua was the most we had to worry about and the Canucks possessed their way to a surprisingly assured and competent victory.
I remain pessimistic about Canada. There are promising signs that Honduras may be in the midst of collapse; if they drop points points tonight at BMO Field in front of their fans manager Luis "Not That Luis Suárez" Suárez is probably done. But the Canadians themselves? Qualifying for the World Cup? There's just not enough skill, a certain tactical naïvete that still condemns us, and even our better players like Hirschfeld, the quietly-resurgent Julian de Guzman, and the entire back line are prone to irritating mental mistakes. Occean's header was a beauty and Simeon Jackson quietly put on a clinic of time-killing 10-vs.-11 attacking, but I think we're entitled to questions about the attack as well.
But at times in the past the players have been there but the results haven't been. This year I continue to purse my lips about the players and many of the performances but haven't we cleared every hurdle?
I refuse to be optimistic. I refuse to believe, and yet this Honduras team... those damnable, loathsome, when-will-they-stop-diving-and-play-some-soccer Hondurans... they're at their most vulnerable point in a decade. We could stomp on their neck, and all it takes is a bit of skill and some reliable play at the back for Canadian fans to start booking time off for the hex. In 2008 we were all-but-done after two games; in 2012 we could be all-but-done after two games for the opposite reason. It's perfectly realistic. It's a weaker group but it's also an extraordinary team; what if, against all odds, this relatively untalented team is the one which finally manages to meet its potential every week?
I'm not sure I dare hope. But the dream is kicking hard.