Delayed by a year due to the pandemic, Canada finally gets its chance Tuesday to kick off qualifying for the FIFA Futsal World Cup.
The Canadian men open against Haiti in a CONCACAF Futsal Championship that is down to 13 teams with the withdrawal of French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe. The tournament, which runs through Sunday in Guatemala City, will determine the four representatives from North and Central America and the Caribbean at this September's World Cup in Lithuania.
Canada, under head coach Kyt Selaidopoulos, has been drawn in Group C with reigning CONCACAF champion Costa Rica and Haiti. The top two in each of the four groups advance to the quarterfinals with the final four booking their ticket to Lithuania.
All games are being played at the Domo Polideportivo, which hosted the 2000 FIFA Futsal World Cup.
The Canadian team met in Chicago, stopping in Houston before arriving in Guatemala City a week ago.
"We're basically in a bubble," said Selaidopoulos. "We go from the bus to the hotel to our rooms and to our meeting room … There's no movement outside or anything. Just when we take the bus to the facility."
The indoor futsal game is five-a-side with two 20-minute halves. The clock stops whenever the ball goes out of play or there is a break in play. Each team starts with one goalkeeper and four outfield players on the pitch, with unlimited substitutions.
It is a high-energy physical game, with space at a premium and close control of the ball an asset. There are elements of both basketball and hockey, with players looking to get in the way of opponents like a basketball screen and teams pulling their goalkeeper for an extra attacker.
Canada came close to making the 2016 FIFA Futsal World Cup, denied by a 7-4 loss to Cuba in its final group game at the CONCACAF qualifier. The Canadians lost to Costa Rica 3-2 and beat Curacao 7-4 before falling to Cuba.
"We came close but it's a learning process," Selaidopoulos said. "We learn from it and now we're a little bit better prepared to face challenges."
Canada ended up finishing sixth in CONCACAF in 2016. It placed seventh in 2012, its only other participation.
Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama and Guatemala represented CONCACAF at the 2016 World Cup.
Canada has not qualified for the Futsal World Cup since the inaugural event in 1989 in the Netherlands, where it failed to advance from the first round after beating Japan and losing to Argentina and Belgium.
Brazil has dominated the world futsal scene, winning five of the eight FIFA World Cups. Spain has won twice and finished runner-up to Brazil three times. Argentina is the defending champion.
Ian Bennett, named MVP of the Major Arena Soccer League this season, provides some veteran leadership to the Canadian squad. The 37-year-old is a longtime member of the Milwaukee Wave. But he switched to the Florida Tropics when Milwaukee elected not to take part in the MASL season.
"Ian is a big attribute to our team. He's one of the oldest and he understands that this is probably his last chance to get to a World Cup so he's focused and he's ready to go," Selaidopoulos said.
Jason (Jayzinho) Quezada is a renowned street footballer, a magician with the ball.
"We're adding something different into the mix," said Selaidopoulos. "And hopefully it pays off."
The roster also includes former Canadian futsal player of the year winners Nazim Belguendouz and Luis Rocha, who is an alternate on the squad.
Mo Farsi, last year's top futsal player, opted to focus on his Canadian Premier League career with Cavalry FC. Farsi was named the CPL's Best Canadian U-21 Player in 2020.
Selaidopoulos' squad has had to come together virtually over the last year. He says that is not an issue given the connections on the team.
There are seven returning players from the 2016 CONCACAF Championship including the Brazilian-born Freddy Moojen. The 38-year-old won the Golden Boot at the 2016 qualifier with five goals in three games.
Haiti, Canada's first opponent, should not present many surprises given some of its roster comes from Montreal-based players with Haitian bloodlines.
Costa Rica is a three-time CONCACAF champion, including the last two tournaments. The Costa Ricans are coming off 7-1 and 8-2 warmup wins over Trinidad and Tobago.
On the plus side, Canada tied and beat Costa Rica (2-2 and 2-1) when the two sides met in early 2020. On the minus side, Canada has not played since.
Angola, Argentina, Brazil, Czech Republic, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Paraguay, Portugal, Russia, Serbia, Solomon Islands, Spain and Venezuela have already qualified for the 2021 World Cup along with host Lithuania.
Asia's qualifier was also called off due to COVID-19. The Asian confederation has nominated Iran, Japan and Uzbekistan with playoffs later this month featuring Iraq versus Thailand and Lebanon versus Vietnam to determine the region's last two spots.
The 43-year-old Selaidopoulos has served as head coach of the Canadian futsal team since 2016. He represented Canada in futsal from 2003 to 2012 and at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in 2006.
In March, the Montreal native was named an assistant coach at the CPL's Forge FC. He declined to say if he would coach Canada if it made it to the World Cup.
CONCACAF Futsal Championship
Group A: Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominican Republic.
Group B: Panama, Mexico and Suriname.
Group C: Costa Rica, Canada and Haiti.
Group D: Cuba, United States, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Canada Roster (x- denotes alternates)
Goalkeepers: Joshua Lemos, Milwaukee Wave (U.S.); Louis-Philippe Simard, Spartiates Sports Club.
Defenders: Daniel Chamale, Milwaukee Wave (U.S.); Bila Dicko-Raynauld, Sporting Quebec FC; Eduardo Jauregui, Toronto Idolo Futsal; Maxime Leconte, Spartiates Sports Club; Nazim Belguendouz, Spartiates Sports Club.
Midfielders: Ian Bennett, Milwaukee Wave (U.S.); Nico Gonzales, Calgary Villains; x-Safwan Mlah, Sporting Montreal; Robert Renaud, Milwaukee Wave (U.S.); x-Luis Rocha, Toronto Idolo Futsal; Marco Rodriguez, Toronto Idolo Futsal.
Target: Damian Graham, Toronto Idolo Futsal; Frederico Moojen, Dallas Sidekicks; Jason Quezada, Miami.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press