Canadian men look to dispatch underdog Belize in FIFA World Cup qualifying
Canada men's national soccer team coach Benito Floro talks to forward Marcus Haber at practice in Toronto, Thursday, Sept.3, 2015 at BMO Field.(Neil Davidson / The Canadian Press)
TORONTO -- Superstitious Canadian soccer fans may not be happy to know that Belize is home to the world's largest sinkhole.
Located 100 kilometres from the mainland, "the Great Blue Hole" is 300 metres wide and 125 metres deep.
Canadian coach Benito Floro will be looking to avoid blundering into a Belize-made hole as his team opens a home-and-away World Cup qualifying series Friday at Toronto's BMO Field.
On the surface, it should be smooth sailing. British bookmaker William Hill has Belize as a 12-1 underdog.
Canada is ranked 102nd in the world while Belize -- whose population is around 350,000 -- is No. 128. The Canadian men dispatched the Jaguars 8-0 on aggregate when they met in a similar qualifying tie in 2004.
Belize has just three players who play outside their country, which is bordered to the north by Mexico, the south and west by Guatemala and the east by the Caribbean Sea. One plays in Guatemala while two are in Honduras. The rest play semi-pro in the Belize league which is filled with colourfully named teams.
Talk about a derby when Police United meets the Belmopan Bandits or the Belize Defence Force faces the Paradise Freedom Fighters.
Belize's character cannot be faulted. In 2013, CONCACAF praised Belize internationals Woodrow West and Ian Gaynair for notifying it about attempts to bribe them ahead of a Gold Cup match against the United States.
Belize, appearing in its first Gold Cup, lost 6-1 to the Americans.
After Friday's opener, Canada heads for Belize for Tuesday's rematch in the capital of Belpoman.
Both coaches are showing plenty of respect for their opponent.
"We believe it is a serious team," Floro said of Belize, which has never got past this stage of qualifying.
"Canada is a very good team. A lot of good players," said Belize's Brazilian-born coach Jorge Nunez. "A lot of players play outside (the country)."
Can Belize win?
"Yes, definitely," Nunez said.
The Canada-Belize victor will become part of CONCACAF Group A in the fourth round, the penultimate stage of qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean. That pool will feature No. 26 Mexico, No. 81 Honduras and either No. 107 El Salvador or No. 148 Curacao with only the top two advancing after round-robin play.
Canada, which had a bye in CONCACAF's first round, advanced to the third round by defeating No. 172 Dominica 6-0 on aggregate.
Belize won its first-round series with the 187th-ranked Cayman Islands on the away goals rule after a 1-1 aggregate tie. It then dispatched the 123rd-ranked Dominican Republic 5-1.
Veteran midfielders Atiba Hutchinson and Will Johnson are back in the Canadian fold.
Hutchinson said while the Canadians have seen some video of Belize in action, "we're just trying to focus on ourselves."
"We've been having some good sessions so we'll be ready for the game," he added.
Thursday's session featured a clearly annoyed Hutchinson booming a ball into the stands at one point, with Floro pulling him over to sort out what had gone wrong.
"A bad pass, I guess," Hutchinson said diplomatically afterwards.
Hutchinson, arguably Canada's best player, missed out on the Gold Cup in July through a groin injury. Johnson, returning to action after a longterm absence due to a badly broken leg, elected not to take part in the July CONCACAF championship because of the travel and congested schedule.
Goalkeeper Milan Borjan is also back after missing the Gold Cup because of commitments with his Bulgarian club Ludogorets.