Canada have surprised more than a few pundits with their performances so far at the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Topping a group that also included high-flying Costa Rica, Caribbean champions Jamaica and El Salvador, the Canucks have a new spring in their step. Leading the way for the northerners is their Africa-born ace Ali Gerba, poised to become the country's all-time top scorer.
"It was no surprise to us that we won our group, but it did surprise a lot of other people," said Gerba, who plays for Toronto FC, American Major League Soccer's only Canadian outfit. "People don't really expect a lot from Canada, but we have some very good players and we can go a long way. We knew that."
The muscular forward, who has scored 17 goals in 29 caps, seems to have hit the mark. Canada, shock winners of the 2000 Gold Cup, have been down in the doldrums of late. Coach Stephen Hart took over from Dale Mitchell, who Gerba will unseat as the nation's leading marksman is he scores three more times, just three months ago. Mitchell had been unable to see the side through to the final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
With the new coach has come a new feel, a new sense of confidence, and it all seems to be flowing to the feet of Gerba, who recovered from a niggling knee injury to take part in the regional showpiece. "I'm happy with the way I'm playing," said the 27-year-old, who scored two match-winning goals in the first round, against Costa Rica and El Salvador. "It's my job to score goals. I'm not concerned with breaking records and all that other stuff, I just want to take pressure off my mates by putting the ball in the net."
Gerba was born in Yaounde, Cameroon, and moved with his family to Montreal when he was 11. He discovered football as a youngster in the streets of west Africa and was surprised to find kids playing the same game thousands of miles away up in the Great White North. However, there was a transition to consider. "That first winter was like something I couldn't believe and I can't describe," Gerba told FIFA.com with a chuckle. "I didn't know it could be that cold. But it warms up nicely in the summers."
His travels did not end then - not by a long shot - as Gerba has lined up for 11 clubs in six countries since 2000, including Norway, Germany and England. He is now back for his second straight Gold Cup, and the pain of the 2-1 semi-final loss to USA in 2007 is still fresh. "That game left a really bad taste in our mouths," he said. "If we keep playing well we could meet them again for a chance to set the record straight."
Gerba was also keen to rubbish some stereotypes about Canadian football. "People have misperceptions about us, like we're a bunch of ice hockey players," he announced. "But we have people from all over the world, and so we have players that are all different and can do different things. I bring a little bit of Africa to the Canada team, and the other guys bring their own flair."
Up next for Gerba and Co is a date with Honduras, the side that knocked them out of contention for South Africa 2010, on 18 July in Philadelphia. "They're a good team, technical and strong," Gerba said. "But we're good too, with a lot of talented players like [Julian] De Guzman, Patrice Bernier, and Atiba Hutchinson. These are the kinds of players who can produce the magical moments that can turn a game."
And when talk finally turns to the ultimate magical moment, recreating the feats of 2000 and being crowned CONCACAF champions, pragmatism creeps into Gerba's words. "It can only be one game at a time," he concluded. "That's what brings you where you want to be. When you're in the final, then you can think about the trophy because it's only 90 minutes away."