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Canada whips undermanned Cuba

Cubans play with 11 men after defections

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FIFA Law 3, paragraph 16: "A match shall not be considered valid and shall be abandoned by the referee if fewer than seven players remain on either team."

In other words, 10 Cuban footballers would have had to defect ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against Canada for the 3-0 match to have been called off. As it happened, only five walked across the bridge at Niagara Falls, leaving 11 of their former teammates to face a desperate Canadian side in Toronto.

The Free Press was able to speak with someone who was at United States customs on Thursday evening, and while he requested anonymity he confirmed the Cubans had been detained on site. The defectors claimed they were "fleeing for their lives," and a customs agent joked that the match at BMO Field would have to be cancelled as there wouldn't be enough Cuban players to field a team.

There were just enough for a full side, as it turned out, although manager Chandler Gonzalez had no one in reserve to use as a substitution -- something he would surely have liked to have done in the 70th minute when forward Roberto Linares (one of only two Cuban players who also faced Canada in June in Havana) was given his marching orders.

At the time Canada led by only a goal -- a 14th-minute Toisant Ricketts tally helped by some good work by Ante Jazic down the left -- and were struggling to make their superior possession numbers count.

The numerical advantage helped them find a second just two minutes later, but as Olivier Occean dug the ball out of the back of the net following Will Johnson's strike he was shown a straight red card for what referee Javier Santos judged to be a shove on goalkeeper Odelin Molina.

It was a harsh decision, and as a result Canada will be without the Eintracht Frankfurt striker when they conclude their CONCACAF World Cup qualifying third-round campaign in Honduras on Tuesday.

As record Canadian goal scorer Dwayne De Rosario will also miss the match with a knee injury, manager Stephen Hart will have to fall back on one of Ricketts, Simeon Jackson and Iain Hume to lead the line in San Pedro Sula.

It's hardly an ideal set of circumstances, but qualifying for a World Cup from the North and Central American and Caribbean region has never been an easy assignment.

Last month the Canadian hotel was surrounded by revellers in Panama City whose attempt at keeping the players awake through the night paid off with a sleepy performance the following day. Whether it's late-night supporters' parties, international defections or questionable refereeing, the path to the World Cup is rarely more intriguing than in CONCACAF.

Not that any of the extracurriculars are in any way helpful to a Canadian team looking to punch a ticket to the World Cup for just a second time.

Canada is likely to require at least a draw from Tuesday's match against Honduras to progress to the fourth and final round of qualifying, and while they'd like nothing better than to spend the next few days concentrating solely on soccer they'll have learned by now that success in this region means not only beating what's in front of you, but sustaining the random, broadside blows as well.

That's just life in CONCACAF. Cuba served up a reminder of it this week, and goodness knows there will be more than a few strange happenings between now and 2014.

On paper, Canada are good enough to go into the pot when the World Cup draw is held in 13 months. But to get to that point, to get to Brazil, they'll have to both win their matches and navigate the peculiar soccer landscape in which they find themselves. Twitter @peterssoccer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 C7

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