GAME DAY: CANADA AT HONDURAS, 1 P.M.
Canadian midfielder Julian de Guzman knows what to expect when he emerges onto the pitch at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in Honduras under a searing sun today.
"You're going to expect hell," said the veteran of three World Cup qualifiers.
"This is their lives, this is all they have for them," he added of the soccer-crazy Hondurans. "This is what we have to make it for ourselves, too . . . It's come down to the stage where it's become the most important game not just for ourselves but the entire country [of Canada]."
De Guzman and the Canadian team will emerge this afternoon out of a battered tunnel that looks like something out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
A yellow metal mesh door topped with poles bars entry when the tunnel is not in use. Barbed wire at the top is there to dissuade fans from trying to climb the fence or moat that surrounds the pitch and its neighbouring track. But penned in the stands, those around the tunnel will bang the metal roof and walls to create an unholy din as the visitors walk below.
Two teams will enter today. Likely only one will leave to continue its World Cup qualifying campaign.
Canada (3-1-1) just needs a tie or win to advance to the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Hondurans (2-1-2) have to win.
Panama (3-1-1) plays in Cuba (0-5-0) at the same time. A shock upset win by Cuba could mean that Canada could still lose and advance, depending on goal difference. More likely Panama and either Canada or Honduras will move on.
Coach Stephen Hart calls today's match "massive."
"The biggest game of my career," said Canadian captain Kevin McKenna, who said he got goosebumps just talking about it.
"This decides a lot of things," said de Guzman. "For myself, my future, the future of football in Canada."
It speaks volumes about Canadian men's soccer that a game of such proportions is just for a chance to play in another round of World Cup qualifying. Ten more matches await if Canada succeeds Tuesday.
The last time Canada made the final round was in 1997 when it finished last in the six-team group with a 1-6-3 record. And Canada's record of participation at the World Cup has been stuck at one for 26 years.
Hondurs has made the World Cup twice - in 1982 and 2010.
Mexico has already qualified for the final round of CONCACAF qualifying and will be joined by five others.
Three teams will emerge from the so-called "hex" qualifying round to represent CONCACAF at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The fourth-place team will challenge the Oceania winner in a playoff to determine who joins them in the final field.
On Monday, a national holiday in Honduras, workers put together the advertising hoardings around the pitch and looked to dress up the crumbling stadium.
Music blared as the Canadians worked out - in preparation for the lengthy tail-gate party that will surround the game.
Built in 1997, the stadium looks like it hasn't been touched since. Today, it is almost a post-apocalyptic vision.
Today, the sun-drenched venue could be full of as many as 40,000 screaming Hondurans and a handful of hardy Canadians.
Savage heat, a hostile crowd and a cage-like arena sound like a recipe for severe stress. But Hart wants his players to savour the moment. He had two messages for his team.
"One, we've very seldom been in this position so enjoy it," he said. "And two, it's like a final."
"I want players to enjoy the moment," he added.
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