Four months of preparation have led to this.
Hired by Soccer Canada in March as the new coach of the Canadian men’s soccer team, Octavio Zambrano will lead his side into an international competition for the first time this month when the Reds compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Zambrano, 59, has previously coached pro clubs in Colombia, Hungary, Moldova, and his native Ecuador, as well as in Major League Soccer. But this is his first time in charge of a national team.
And it’s fair to say he has his work cut out for him. Canada currently sits 109th in the FIFA world rankings, and has already been eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Qatar.
Zambrano has one game under his belt, a 2-1 win over Curacao in a friendly in Montreal last month. The Gold Cup, though, will be his first major test as Canadian coach.
Sportsnet chatted one-on-one with Zambrano to get his take on how the job has gone so far, the challenges ahead for this Canadian team, and to preview the Gold Cup.
You’ve been on the job for four months now. Do you have a good handle on the Canadian player pool available to you, or are you still evaluating?
I think you’re constantly evaluating because you’re always on the lookout for any player that could help the program. I think we have a pretty good inventory [of players]; we know what’s available to us and we know that what we have is good. But there are some guys who are playing abroad that could make this team even better, so we need to devote every effort to try to improve our team by bringing in those players into the national program.
At the same time, we are allowing some our younger players, such as Juan Cordova [with Chilean team CD Huachipato], to play in their pre-seasons with their professional clubs so they have a better chance of securing a regular starting position, which in the end will have major benefits for Canada.
When you talk about players abroad, you mean guys who are eligible to play for Canada but have not yet made that commitment?
Yes. We’ve identified a group of players we think that in the right environment and in the right situation will eventually commit to Canada. We are working along with Canada Soccer and everyone involved in the national team program to make sure that when the times comes that that commitment is made.
Now, there are several things attached to that because when a player has options [to play for more than one country] it becomes an issue. You have to do your part to convince the player in some way. But we have positioned ourselves very well by virtue of meeting these players face-to-face, by visiting with them, and inviting them to come to Canada. We’ve done our homework, so to speak, and now it’s just a matter of allowing them the time that usually needs to elapse for players to make decisions.
It’s a situation where you need to show that you have interest, but obviously, nobody is desperate here. We can’t rely on one of two of these players to transform the Canadian team, but we do understand that one or two players can make a good team great.
Are you at liberty to say which players from abroad you’ve identified and approached?
[Laughs] No, not at this time because it’s a bit of a sensitive issue.
What did you learn about this Canadian team from last month’s win over Curacao in Montreal?
What I learned is that we have a group of young players that are eager to contribute and eager to get on the pitch and show what they have. We also have some guys that have been around that will be very instrumental in ushering these young guys into what the Canadian national team is going to be like in the future. We are trying to find that balance, and I think sooner rather than later this transition will take place where the younger guys will be our chief protagonists.
That’s just where we are in Canadian soccer at this time – we’re in a transitional moment, and the game against Curacao showed that. We played OK; we were a bit tentative and not so precise, but when the younger guys came onto the field you could see a change, and a change for the better.
You previously talked about this team’s identity and trying to firmly establish it. Have you figured out what that identity is, or is that still a work in progress?
We have to draw from the greatness of our pool of players that have different backgrounds and different ideas and different upbringings, but make them play as one. Canada is a nation of immigrants and we need to take pride in that, and we need to take advantage of that, and use it to perform on any stage and in any competition as a source of strength. As a country, we are so diverse that we can draw from any kind of player to change the game.
Now, within that identity of being a diverse nation, we can’t try to emulate playing like Germany, or like Dutch teams, or like Brazilian teams. We don’t have to do it, and we shouldn’t do it. We have to play like Canadians. We have a player pool that is diverse and we need to take advantage of that diversity.
Canada’s recent history at the Gold Cup makes for pretty grim reading. The team has not scored a goal in the competition since 2011, let alone win a game, and has bowed out in the group stage in each of its last three appearances. How much of that weighs on your mind and the players’ minds?
You can look at the past performances because you need to learn what history can teach you. But you will be better served to look ahead to the future. The past doesn’t look so bright, but we do have young guys for the future, who you can say, “Here we are! We have this great group of players who are just coming onto the scene and we can showcase them.”
Even though we will revisit some of the things from the past three Gold Cups as a reference, what I prefer to do is to look to the future and to think of how bright it is, and not be too engaged with the past. History is history, but you can only change history if you give your current side a chance. We’ve made the decision to be a different team from now on, we’re not going to be a team that just shows up with fear and tentativeness, like previous Canadian teams have done so in the past.
You’re in a Gold Cup group with French Guiana, Honduras and Costa Rica. How difficult will it be for Canada to advance to the knockout round?
There’s no easy opponent in this group. French Guiana had to win some important games just to get to the Gold Cup, so this is not an easy team. I’d say they’re even better than Curacao, so we have our work cut out for ourselves.
But we need to work on our idea of who we are, and to make sure we understand who we are, rather than be too concerned about French Guiana. I would say the same thing about Costa Rica or Honduras. We respect them, obviously, as they are teams that have achieved a lot in the world stage, and we need to be cognizant of that. But if we step onto the pitch thinking they are better than us, we’ve already lost half the battle. We need to go and compete without fear, to go after them and show them that we came here to win.
If anything, that’s how I would measure success at this Gold Cup. Obviously, we want to get out of the first round, we want to score some goals, and win games. But what I want more than anything is for our guys to believe that they can beat anybody. If I can see in their eyes that idea and that mentality that carries them to play without fear, then I’ll be very happy.