Two weeks ago, the Canadian Soccer Association announced that the Canadian men's national team would...
No, no, one sentence in and I've already screwed up my facts. The Canadian Soccer Assocation didn't announce boo. The Canadian Soccer Association, to my knowledge, has never formally announced either of these matches, although they have deigned to put our November 14 match against Macedonia on their website. The Macedonian media informed us about that friendly, whereas our November 18 fixture against Slovakia came via Pompey Canuck of Think It All In. CSA media czar Richard Scott, also known as "one of the only, like, three guys at the CSA who actually does his job well" is in Nigeria right now, possibly explaining the glacial Canadian media coverage.
But friendlies! Matches! Actual competitive games! We're playing them in recently war-torn Central European countries that haven't qualified for the World Cup, and the Canadian team officially will not molest the plastic of BMO Field with a home match in 2009. Next to no Canadians will be able to witness the madness (for the hell of it, I looked up the cost of round trip airfare from Victoria to Skopje, Macedonia and it came out just south of $6000). But, except for Pompey Canuck and his fear for our FIFA ranking, all of us supporters are pleased as punch. Hooray! Away friendlies that we'll probably have to listen to a low-fidelity stolen Greek Internet radio stream in order to witness! This is a pleasant surprise to us!
These are legitimate opponents, too. Better than, to pick teams not at all at random, Cyprus or Estonia. Canada last played Poland on July 15, 1988 (!), at Varsity Stadum (!!) in Toronto (!!!), losing 2-1. The Reds also played Poland three times in the 1974-75 soccer semester, losing 2-0 in Warsaw and drawing 0-0 in Toronto and Montreal. In spite of the long layoff Poland's one of our most popular European adversaries even though Canada's career record against the Poles is a sterling 0-4-2.
Macedonia, on the other hand, we played once. In 1998, in Toronto. We beat them 1-0. Former Impact/86ers/Impact again/Whitecaps this time striker Niall Thompson scored his second and, it turned out, last national goal in the win at Varsity. As a result we are undefeated against the Red Lions, and there are so few nations left we can say that about it's a vague thrill to put that perfect record on the line.
As always, the Voyageurs are your best source for the minutiae of the Canadian national team. Say what you will about certain Ultras who go off like fireworks every time the Impact are even remotely denigrated, but where else in this country would you learn that our match against Macedonia will not take place in the capital of Skopje but instead in picturesque little Strumica in the eastern quarter of the country, population 55,000, meaning the Canadian men's national team will play a full international in a city smaller than the Edmonton suburb I grew up in. Mladost Stadium, or as I like to call it the Wembley of the Balkans, has a capacity of 6,500, great big bare patches in the outfield, and a waist-high chainlink fence around three sides of the playing surface.
We're not playing Poland in their capital of Warsaw either, but we're still getting a legitimate ground. The Voyageurs report that we'll be playing in the north-central city of Bydgoszcz, and their largest and most likely venue is Zdzisław Krzyszkowiak Stadium, a 20,000-man all-seater and a rather elegant, modern stadium despite being built in 1960. Poland missed out on the World Cup and is actually ranked below us at #56, but don't be fooled for a second. The Poles are worthy adversaries despite only placing fifth in their strong World Cup qualifying group, and they're better than we are nine days out of ten.
Macedonia came fourth in their five-team group and had some notable performances, including a 2-1-1 record at home against pretty strong teams. They're ranked #66, leading to some angst for the ratings-watchers among us, but they are at worst Canada's equal on the pitch.
I'm not a huge ratings guru. I understand their importance in terms of getting us a better seed for 2014 World Cup qualification, but I think it's more important to play teams that are slightly above our level in order to improve our players. Any given day, we ought to be able to beat Jamaica or El Salvador or even Honduras provided we get our team to play as one, and friendlies against legitimate nations are the most important way to do that.
Certainly, Stephen Hart would agree with me: he went public around the time of the Gold Cup saying that, as a condition for staying on as manager, he'd want Canada to contest every international friendly date. If the CSA is unable or unwilling to make the expenditure to bring in a home friendly they're doing the next-best thing. With luck, they'll also be able to bring together a reasonable A squad made up of out-of-season MLSrs and whatever Europeans we can lay our hands on.
My particular fond hope is for a certain 35-year-old Tomasz Radzinski to get a run out. Radzinski was born in Poznań, Poland, but has never as far as I can tell played in his original homeland. It would be a fitting tribute to one of our truest warriors.