World Cup qualifying always tough but now even more complicated during a pandemic

·4 min read

TORONTO — John Herdman knows the numbers inside-out.

"We've conducted 800 (COVID-19) tests in the last two months across the men's and the women's (teams). We've had over 90 staff and players through our doors," the Canada men's coach said in an interview.

"We've played five games, from internationals to intrasquads. We've been in two different locations in the U.S. We've had people flying in from six different countries."

There has been just one positive test, recorded upon arrival in Florida at the Canadian men's camp in January. That player was asymptomatic, starting the camp in isolation.

For Herdman, the lone positive test "shows how hard people have worked to keep our players safe."

"There's been some great work at Canada Soccer to achieve that," he added. "I think the statistics are good at this stage. But you just know how vulnerable the situations are, now matter how much you try to control your own reality. Sometimes it's down to other people that may be in your proximity by chance, and that's the little bit you can't control.

"But I think our players are feeling confident and safe to be with our team. And just excited, from everything I'm hearing, to be back wearing that (Canadian) shirt again."

Herdman and his team will be on familiar ground later this month when World Cup qualifying starts.

The Canadians kick off their Qatar 2022 qualifying campaign against Bermuda on March 25 in Orlando. While officially a Canada home game, the match was moved to Exploria Stadium because of pandemic-related border restrictions.

Their next game will also be in Florida. A March 28 match scheduled to be played in the Cayman Islands has been switched to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, where the Canadian team held the January camp.

The Cayman Islands faces its own difficulties in hosting a game, given it currently requires visitors to quarantine for 14 days upon entry. That quarantine period is being reduced to 10 days as of March 22, providing visitors have been vaccinated.

For Herdman, playing in Florida is making the best of a bad situation.

"You really always want to play at home," he said. "The players relish that opportunity to come back to their own country and play in front of our own fans. So when the fans are taken away, you still want to come back to your own country. But unfortunately at this time, the way the rules and regulations are around COVID, to protect the players, to protect the public, we've had to take both games into America."

The team will be based in Orlando for the Bermuda and Cayman Islands games. The men will stay at the same hotel the women occupied during the recent SheBelieves Cup.

Herdman is expecting still more challenges, however, with the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic.

"We're still working to see if we can bring all of our top players in. But what I'm learning is there's just absolutely no guarantee … Everyone thinks you're probably going to jump on an airplane and go through your protocols."

The reality is protocols are different in each country, including the U.S. with tighter rules under newly elected President Joe Biden. Canada Soccer has set up an internal COVID management group to help shed light on the everchanging landscape.

"We've been researching every solution to try and ensure our players can come in," Herdman said.

"It's been one of the most complex sort of jigsaw puzzles I've ever faced," he added.

Burnout is also an issue with the stress of travelling during the pandemic during already condensed club seasons.

Herdman noted he brought a deep squad to camp in January "to be ready for any eventuality."

"We've got a deep pool, we've got a talented pool. I'm confident no matter what happens, we'll be ready on March 25 against Bermuda and then three days later (against the Cayman Islands)."

He will likely dig deep into that squad, with some strategic planning likely in choosing his roster for the March and June World Cup qualifiers as well as the Gold Cup, which runs July 10 to Aug. 1.

Olympic qualifying starts next week with the Tokyo Olympics looming if the Canadian men can qualify for the first time since the 1984 Los Angeles Games,

Canada's senior side is currently ranked 73rd in the world compared to No. 169 for Bermuda and No. 193 for the Cayman Islands.

Canada is 5-0-4 all-time against Bermuda and has won the last three meetings, outscoring the Bermudians 9-2.

While the Canadian men have never faced the Caymans at the senior level, they have played there. Cuba shifted a home match to George Town, the Caymans' capital, in September 2019 in CONCACAF Nations League A play.

The locations for Canada's away game June 5 against No. 200 Aruba and home match June 8 against No. 141 Suriname have yet to be announced. Herdman hopes playing in Canada will be a possibility then.

The Cayman Islands open qualifying March 24 at Suriname.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press