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Canada proving to be contenders both on and off pitch in World Cup qualifying

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EDMONTON — It was frigid, inhospitable and frankly a bit rude. Very un-Canadian of us, really.

Which means that we have arrived as a soccer nation, signaling that we’re ready to compete in the CONCACAF group — not just on the pitch, but just as importantly, off of it.

Road ties against traditional group powers Mexico and the United States show on-field maturity, while a frosty 2-1 home win over the Mexicans Tuesday night in Edmonton — and first place in the group tables that comes with that victory — is more tangible evidence that we can football now, where we could not (so well) before.

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But there was so much more to it than that.

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Forcing Mexico to play us on Edmonton’s snowiest day of the young winter, with a breezy temperature of minus-9 Celsius at kickoff, was both savvy and sinister. After decades of succumbing to the heat, humidity and altitude of places like Estadio Azteca in Mexico City — not to mention the general chicanery that Mexican football foists on its visiting opponents — the scheduling of this game shows that we are willing to compete at all of those levels that the rest of this group has been on for decades.

“When you have to go to Azteca and play at altitude it’s tough. When you have to go to Jamaica and play in the humidity and the heat, it’s tough. Every coach uses the terrain to their advantage,” said Team Canada head coach John Herdman. “There was a genuine opportunity here to bring out the Canadian in our players. They’ve all grown up on plastic pitches, and in cold.

“They had to adapt, the Mexicans, like we had to adapt to altitude.”

It was Canada’s first victory over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1976, evidence that we have the necessary talent to win on the pitch with a star like Alphonso Davies and support from the likes of Tuesday’s two-goal man Cyle Larin.

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What we’ve always lacked, though, was the willingness to do to them what they do to us, when we are the visitors.

Or, at least, some watered down Canadian version of the trickery that the rest of CONCACAF has delivered for lo these many years, with their broken-down busses, lost locker room keys, and vuvuzelas that play all night outside the Canadian hotel.

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“The biggest thing about playing in CONCACAF,” began ex-Canadian ‘keeper Craig Forrest, “is that it is just so different playing in one place to another. Whether it’s the altitude, the temperature, humidity, heat, cold, snow… Surfaces are different, like playing in Jamaica right after playing on a perfect surface in Azteca.”

Ah, Estadio Azteca.

They had the hashtag #Iceteca trending as early day pictures of a snow-covered Commonwealth Stadium floated across the internet on Tuesday, and as fans arrived the pews at Commonwealth were at best partially swept.

But in a crowd of 44,212, we did not witness one snowball thrown all evening long. Which is pretty good when you consider that it is regular fare for a visiting player to dodge a flying battery or two when lining up a corner kick in Azteca, or many of the Central American CONCACAF destinations, if not a bag of urine thrown by one of the locals.

“At Azteca there is quite a distance, with a moat in between the fans and the pitch,” recalled Forrest. “But in El Salvador, I noticed the bags coming down and exploding around an American taking a penalty (earlier in this tournament).”

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The moments that shaped history
In the chill of what was dubbed “Iceteca Stadium,” Canada beat Mexico in a World Cup qualifier for the first time since 1976. Here are the must-see moments.

Forrest has 56 caps as a Canadian national, most played inside a group where the term “getting CONCACAF’ed” has become a transitive verb. He’s been robbed —both individually and as a team, where someone in El Salvador stole all the team’s gear as it was being transported to the airport. Canada has had their hotel rooms cleaned out at the Mexico City Westin. An investigation was promised, though Forrest doubts it ever was launched.

“Expect it,” advised Forrest. “We could show up to train today and we can’t get in. There would be nobody at the stadium except a couple of military guys with machine guns. We’re supposed to have our hour on the field and they don’t know anything about it.”

We’re Canadians. We’re never going to deny a training session to a visiting opponent — right?

“A source I trust has kindly informed me today that the Mexicans did in fact ask for training time at the Edmonton Soccer Dome and were denied it because it was booked for youth soccer. I am delighted,” tweeted Canadian journalist Chris Jones on Tuesday.

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Hey, we’d have loved to have given the Mexicans that time slot. But, you know… The kids.

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For some reason, Mexico did not take advantage of their training window at Commonwealth Stadium the day before the game. Was it Canada’s fault that it was snowing profusely?

“We’ve been scrapping every game, and we find every opportunity that we can to let people know that this is life or death for us,” Herdman said post-game. “It’s a 14-game war, and we’ve only got six games left. Six tough matches.

“We’ve just got to keep looking for those opportunities to get any one per cent that we can on these opponents.”

The next CONCACAF qualifying window opens in late January, with scheduled games in Honduras on Jan. 27 and El Salvador on Feb. 2., with a home contest against the United States sandwiched in between.

They wouldn’t return to Edmonton in January….

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Would they?



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