GAME DAY: CUBA AT CANADA, 4 P.M.
Lars Hirschfeld's commitment to Canada was hard to miss Thursday.
Under an ice pack on his right foot was a nasty bump, the size of a "camel hump" in his words. The ugly bone bruise came courtesy of a two-footed tackle from an opponent in a Norwegian league game two and a half weeks ago.
"I'm here to play," the 33-year-old goalie from Edmonton declared after a closed practice at BMO Field. "It hurts like hell, but there's no excuses.
"I played the last two games for my club [Oslo's Valerenga Fotball] through pain. That's just how it is."
It's every man to the pump for Canada, whose World Cup qualifying future will be determined over the next five days, with a home game against Cuba at BMO Field today and a likely crucial clash in Honduras on Tuesday.
No. 43 Panama (3-1-0) currently leads the group with nine points, followed by No. 66 Honduras and No. 61 Canada (both 2-1-1) at seven. Cuba, ranked 146 by FIFA, has no points after four straight losses.
The top two teams advance to the six-country final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Panama hosts Honduras today in a game the Canadians will be watching closely. The Panamanians wrap up qualifying play in Cuba on Tuesday.
Three of the six teams from the final round of CONCACAF qualifying will advance to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff.
Canada's lone visit to the World Cup was in 1986.
If the current crop of Canadian players feel any pressure, they aren't showing it. That comes straight from the top, where coach Stephen Hart exudes calm.
"He's the most laidback man I've ever met," forward Iain Hume said with a grin. "He's great to work for and I think you can see that the way the guys train, the way the guys play. They do everything they can for him."
Hart was as relaxed as ever Thursday, despite acknowledging the coming schedule represented "the biggest" moment of his coaching career.
"You know what? Any time I wake up and there's a game and I have players to work with, it's like Christmas for me," the Trinidad native said with a big smile. "This is the part I enjoy.
There is much at stake for the Canadian Soccer Association. Teams that exited after the first round of the 2010 World Cup earned $8 million US. The Canadian association's annual budget is about $20 million.
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