A cadre of Canuck veterans - Dwayne De Rosario, Kevin McKenna, Ante Jazic, Lars Hirschfeld, and Julian De Guzman, all over 30 - are desperate to make the current World Cup qualifying campaign count. “For a lot of the guys, it’s our last chance to get to the World Cup,” 31-year-old midfielder De Guzman told FIFA.com, the urgency clear in his voice.
“Confidence is high and there’s more stability in the team than in previous campaigns,” said De Guzman, who was in the sides that went out early, and badly, in qualifying for 2006 and 2010. It’s been 26 years since Canada made their one and only appearance at a FIFA World Cup finals, crashing out of Mexico 1986 after three straight losses.
While the traditional CONCACAF powers like Mexico, USA and Costa Rica received automatic berths to the current semi-final round, Canada were forced to play in a pre-qualifying group. “It was a bonus for us,” said De Guzman about the grueling schedule, which took them far afield to places like Puerto Rico and St. Lucia. “We were able to play six competitive games we wouldn’t have otherwise played. We got experience you just can’t get in friendlies. We were on the road, with guys fighting for spots. We suffered together.”
Road tested Team Canada
They also prospered together, going undefeated and finishing first in the section. “By the time we got to Havana, we were ready,” added De Guzman, a stocky and muscular holding midfielder who knows when to burst into attack. The first game of their semi-final round, a tricky road test against Cuba, ended in a 1-0 win for the Canadians. “It’s not easy to play on the road in CONCACAF,” the player reflected.
It was one of only two wins away from home for any of the teams in that round of qualifying, and it was immediately followed by a disappointing goalless draw against Honduras in Toronto. “We let two points slip away that day,” said De Guzman, identifying home form as a problem. “We still need to work on that killer instinct in front of goal,” he admitted.
"If only we had a striker like Christine Sinclair,” enthused De Guzman, referring to the Canadian women’s striker, who led the side to bronze at the Olympics in London. “She and the team did the country so proud, and their bronze could have easily been gold, you know.” Without the luxury of a striker who averages more than a goal per game, De Guzman says his side “scores goals from midfield” and “share them around.” But with just one in their two semi-final round games, he concedes: “We still need to work on the last touch.”
There is a doggedness and a determination about De Guzman, of Jamaican and Filipino roots. He has known great highs and lows in a career that began in Germany with FC Saarbrucken before gaining momentum at Deportivo La Coruna, a major power in Spain’s La Liga at the time. He became a fan favourite at the Estadio Riazor and was named the club’s player of the year for the 2007/08 season, the same year he became only the second Canadian in history to be voted best player at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
When his hometown of Toronto established a Major League Soccer (MLS) outfit in that fateful 2007, De Guzman harbored a dream to be a part of it. He signed a lucrative contract with the club two years later and was named captain, but he failed to gel with the side.
“Things didn’t work out for me or for the fans in Toronto, and that’s a sad thing,” he said, his voice going a shade quieter. In his first season of an injury-plagued spell there, Toronto finished near bottom and the next year they failed to reach the play-offs again. The writing was on the wall and De Guzman moved on to FC Dallas. “This is the life of a professional footballer. Toronto will always be my home, but soccer is my living and I had to go.”
Up next for the Canadians, where De Guzman’s performances have been consistently stellar, are two games with Group C leaders Panama, the most improved team in CONCACAF in the last decade. “The next game is critical,” he said. “We need to beat them at home and then we’ll be in the driver’s seat, in a very good position to reach the next round (the six-team 'hexagonal').”
It all seems to come around to the dream of leading Canada back to the FIFA World Cup finals. “Sometimes I’ll get a random phone call from De Rosario or Atiba [teammate Hutchinson] and we’ll just talk about it, talk about the World Cup," De Guzman said, emotion rising in his voice. “This is our best chance. I want to be a part of the team that does it."