Cuba hosts Canada in a World Cup qualifying game Friday at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana. Kickoff is 2 p.m., with a midday forecast of 31C and the potential of thunderstorms and humidity making it feel more like 42C.
“Welcome to the wonderful world of hospitality in the World Cup,” said TSN soccer analyst Jason deVos, a former Canadian international.
“This is done for one reason and one reason only — to give them (Cubans) a competitive advantage,” deVos said of the unusual weekday start time. “If that’s the difference between a 1-0 victory or a 1-1 draw, then they’re going to go to whatever length they have to, to make sure they get the result.
“That’s what it would mean to them to qualify for the World Cup.”
Friday’s match (2 p.m., Sportsnet) kicks off the third round of qualifying for Brazil 2014. The top two teams of Canada’s group, which also includes Panama and Honduras, will advance to the final round to be played in 2013.
Away games in the midday heat are not uncommon for Canada, which competes in the CONCACAF region, comprising North and Central America and the Caribbean. Same goes for those at high altitude, whether it be Mexico City or Tegucigalpa in Honduras, where the visitors struggle to catch their breath and battle fatigue due to the thinness of the air.
But at least once there’s been a distinct home-field advantage for the Maple Leaf. On Sept. 14, 1985, the Canucks qualified for the first — and to date only — time by defeating the warm-weather Hondurans 2-1 on a cold day on a bumpy pitch in St. John’s, Nfld.
Cuba, the No. 145 team in the world according to rankings out Wednesday, is even more of a long-shot to reach Brazil than the No. 77 Canadians. But that doesn’t put them above doing everything possible to get an edge.
DeVos, who played 49 games for Canada including three World Cup qualifying cycles, said it’s just part of doing business in CONCACAF. He recalls everything from midday kickoffs to fire alarms going off in the hotel in the middle of the night and buses being late to take the team to games.
“That’s the world of international football,” deVos said. “You understand when you’re going into places like Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, Panama, you’re going into the lion’s den and, as a competitor, you love that.”
Still, deVos wishes Canada would adopt a similar strategy for its home games, making it “uncomfortable for the opposition” by scheduling matches against teams from warmer countries later in the year in colder cities.
By contrast, deVos recalls qualifying for the 2002 World Cup when Canada faced Trinidad and Tobago at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. As the teams came out on the field, a reggae band was playing, he said.
“We rolled out the red carpet to make them feel at home,” deVos said of the prelude to a 2-0 victory by Trinidad. “That’s unheard of.
“We go to Mexico and the Barenaked Ladies or Tragically Hip aren’t on the field to make us feel at home. It’s frustrating to say the least.”
While the heat and humidity will have an impact on the players from both sides, it’s only logical that the Canadians will feel it more as the visitors.
It’s a lot easier to become dehydrated in such weather, especially if your body is not used to it, and that can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps, headaches and bigger issues, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In a 90-minute game in which only three substitutes can be used, the impact on a team, especially in the match’s late stages, could influence the final result.
Studies show that acclimatization to such heat takes days or even weeks. So, the key for the Canadians, who left for Cuba Wednesday afternoon, is to do all they can to mitigate the impact by increasing their intake of water and electrolyte-rich sports drinks such as Gatorade in the days leading up to the match. On the day of the game, they need even more of it, experts say.
“From the minute they get up (on game day) we tell them you have to make sure you’re starting to hydrate because in soccer there’s not too many chances once the game starts like there is in hockey or football where guys get to take a break when they got off the ice or the field,” said Carmelo Lobue, head athletic therapist with Toronto FC for its six-season existence.
Lobue, who was with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts for five seasons before joining TFC, said that when facing heat and humidity at home, or encountering it or altitude on the road, the key is ensuring players don’t underestimate its impact on them. Adequate hydration, proper diet and sufficient sleep are vital, he said.
“They may think they’re used to it but you can easily find out when it’s too late that you should have done more to take care and prepare,” he said.
Weather can also dictate how the game is played from the opening whistle.
“Going forward and pressing really hard, I think that’s not really an option for long periods,” Canadian goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld said when asked the impact the heat and humidity in Havana might have on his side’s tactics. “So, we’ve go to be really smart about it and pick our moments.”
Defender Andre Hainault, who plays his home games in the Texas heat with Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, said a recent training camp in Florida will help the Canadians be ready, along with proper eating and hydration this week.
“I do have red hair and freckles, so heat and humidity is not really my climate,” Hainault quipped. “It’s not going to be pleasant for anyone.”
Source: Toronto Star