Are you ready for some math? The Canada men’s national team ought to be should they want to keep alive their hopes of reaching the Hexagonal round of Concacaf qualifying.
Following a January camp that included two 4-1 wins over Barbados and a 1-0 loss to Iceland, head coach John Herdman’s side is still aiming to supplant El Salvador as the sixth-ranked Concacaf team in the June 2020 FIFA World Rankings.
If they succeed, they’ll qualify for the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997. If not, they’ll begin World Cup qualifying as one of 29 countries fighting for a half-shot at Qatar 2022.
Can Canada actually do it?
Mathematically, it’s certainly doable. The three results this month netted Les Rouges about 0.37 points in the FIFA World Rankings, which will give them either 1,331 or 1,332 points when the next edition is released.
With confirmation this week that Sunday’s friendly between El Salvador and Iceland is an unofficial one, the Central Americans look set to ride into February at 1,346 points.
So, Canada has FIFA international match windows in March and June to close that gap of 14 or 15 points. Herdman isn’t aiming for the bare minimum, though; he’s seeking friendly opponents against whom a win would be worth about five points for his side.
For some context, winning a friendly during a FIFA match window against an opponent of equal strength gains you exactly five points. Beat a higher-ranked opponent and you’ll get more than five; trounce an underdog and you’ll earn less.
Of course, a loss depletes your point total, and a draw is worth much less than a win. In other words, Canada could shoot for the moon and try to play Belgium or Brazil, but the nearly inevitable loss they’d suffer would send their point total downward.
Who could Canada face?
If Canada’s looking for two potentially winnable games in March that would earn about 10 points total, who are we talking about? A good gauge might be looking at who’s ranked just above and just below Canada in the latest FIFA rankings.
We can rule out many of them right off the bat. Without going too far down the geopolitical rabbit hole, suffice it to say that visiting the Middle East likely isn’t in Canada’s short-term plans, which could rule out the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Oman as opponents.
Qualifying for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations will keep essentially that entire continent occupied, so South Africa, Guinea, Uganda, Cape Verde and Gabon are all unlikely. Also, China has their own World Cup qualifying to contend with.
Over in Europe, North Macedonia will be in Euro 2020 qualifying, while Montenegro already has two friendlies booked.
However, Albania and Slovenia will play each other in a friendly in Italy on March 30. Both teams are in Canada’s neighborhood, and one could be a great fit for the early portion of that match window, which runs from March 23-31.
If Canada’s setting up shop in Europe, who might a second opponent be? A team such as Uzbekistan would be a good fit, but they’re busy. Canada also has recent history with Belarus, but they’ll be in the throes of Euro qualification.
You need to go deep into the archives to find Canada’s last match against Cyprus. But facing them in March 2020 could be worth around 4.2 FIFA points. Combined with a theoretical haul of 5.3 points against Slovenia, Les Rouges could escape Europe with 9.5 points in March.
Or, they could keep things closer to home in the Western Hemisphere. Sitting in Canada’s neighborhood are Ecuador, Bolivia, Curacao, Panama and, of course, El Salvador. Let’s assume El Salvador wouldn’t take the colossal risk of agreeing to such a thing.
A pair of wins against Conmebol’s two lowest-ranked teams could net Canada north of 10 FIFA points, while giving the South American sides preparation for the Copa America tournament in June.
If Canada opts to stay local, they’ll have to pick one or the other when it comes to Curacao and Panama, as the two teams meet each other in a friendly in late March. But if Canada can book one, what other Concacaf opponent might they play earlier in the match window?
You already know who it’s going to be: Honduras. Like Batman and Joker, these two foes seem cosmically fated to always battle for a Hex spot. Exorcising old demons against Honduras might be just what Canada needs to reach the Hex, assuming that El Salvador stands pat or loses ground in the coming months, of which there’s no guarantee.
There’s no easy road to the Hex for Canada, though there never really is. For now, there’s merely the irreconcilable intersection of vibrant, fluttering aspirations and cold, hard numbers.