As we reported yesterday, in February of 2011 Canada will travel to an unknown Greek location, probably the greater Athens area, and take on the Greek national team in a men's soccer friendly. Canada is ranked eighty-eighth in the world, Greece is ranked twelfth. We haven't won a match on the road since May of 2009 against Cyprus and, frankly, have had a hard time winning anywhere lately. Greece plays a tenuous, defensive style that makes it difficult for even the most offensively gifted teams in the world to score a goal, and Canada is a long way from the most offensively gifted team in the world. On paper, this has "disappointing defeat" written all over it.
I think it's excellent. I could not be more excited.
Oh, of course Canada will be heavy underdogs in the match. It's not for five months but we can say that with absolute certainty. Canada seems to save its best games for when we're heavy underdogs: witness last year's Gold Cup, or the famous Brazil game in 2007, or for that matter the last time we took on a former European champion and lost a tight one to Spain back in 2005. But I'm not fool enough to think we're going to conjure up some sort of underdog magic or that our best eleven, playing at the top of their game, is the match of Greece's best eleven playing at the top of their's.
No, I'm excited because this is exactly the sort of match Canada should be scheduling. It's a low-risk, high-reward encounter against a challenging opponent. Losing will carry no consequences beyond a lesson learned, and winning could be very rewarding. Playing world class opposition, moreover, is its own reward: say what you will about Peru and Ukraine, but just because they're better than us doesn't mean they should be what we aspire to. This is a brilliant, brilliant friendly and don't worry, I can explain why.
The first and, if I'm honest, most important reason this friendly will be so excellent is in terms of our FIFA ranking. Greece, as I mentioned above, is currently ranked seventy-six places ahead of Canada on the most recent FIFA rankings. Canada is probably slightly undervalued by their FIFA ranking (our Elo ranking, which is a mathematically determined but unofficial rating system similar to that used in chess, has us 54th in the world) and Greece is heavily overvalued (their Elo ranking is 34th, down there with Ecuador and Romania). Believe it or not, this is important.
Summing up the FIFA ranking system is beyond the scope of this article, but here's the relevant summary: if these rankings hold into February, a Canada loss to Greece would hardly affect our ranking. We're ranked a long way behind Greece, our confederation (CONCACAF) is ranked behind UEFA, and we're playing on the road. What this means is that the FIFA ranking system does not expect us to get a result and won't punish us heavily if we don't. But a victory or even a draw would bring us a disproportionate ratings boost, because in the eyes of the FIFA system it would be a massive upset. This is why Greece's being overrated and Canada's being underrated matters: the gap in ratings terms is far larger than the real gap in quality, which means that Canada has a better-than-usual chance to get way more ranking points than they'd deserve. Using current FIFA rankings, Canada would actually gain more points from beating Greece than they would by beating Italy.
The FIFA rankings are mostly tools for lazy sportswriters looking for a quick article, but they do have one very important role: the draw for CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is seeded by FIFA ranking. Pompey Canuck wrote a couple of excellent posts last year about how the FIFA ranking could affect us for World Cup 2014 qualifying. With the impending changes to CONCACAF's qualifying format the picture changes but the basic message remains the same: we really, really want to be ranked as highly as possible. Taking on the likes of Greece is a great way to help our ranking.
That's not the only reason to be enthusiastic about this match. The February 9 contest will fall on a FIFA date, meaning the European leagues will make Canada's players available to the national team. The North American leagues don't respect international dates but are out of season in February, meaning Canada will be able to assemble the best squad possible for this friendly against a highly competitive opponent. Even if Greece sends a "B" squad (unlikely at a home match during European Championships qualifying season) that would be more than competitive against Canada. Of course, our MLS players won't be fully fit but even having de Guzman and Attakora available for only forty-five minutes is better than not having them available at all.
And there's the simple thrill of playing a team that, while overrated, is still legitimately classy. Would you believe Canada has never, in all its history, beaten a former European champion (we overcame an Italian amateur team in an almost entirely forgotten friendly back in 1986 but it wasn't an "A" friendly and doesn't count)? The last time Canada beat any former non-CONCACAF continental champion was when we knocked off South Korea 2-1 back at the 2002 Gold Cup. Greece is the sort of strong opponent we don't see very much of. It's true that, the last time we we played a real first-class team, Argentina whooped us 5-0 earlier this summer. But we're hardly going to improve at such games by not playing them.
The day is February 9, 2011. It will, in all probability, take place at Karaiskakis Stadium in the Athens suburb of Piraeus. It will also almost certainly not be on Canadian television, but you know what? Circle the date on your calendar anyway. It could wind up being an important one.