Canada hoping to defy odds and overcome past woes for first win in Mexico

Canada's Jonathan David (20) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Suriname during the second half of a World Cup 2022 Group B qualifying soccer match Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Bridgeview, Ill. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca is truly one of world soccer’s most famous cathedrals, a venue steeped in history and tradition, and intrinsically tied to some of the sport’s biggest stars and iconic moments.

It was on the hallowed ground of the venerable stadium where Pele and the greatest Brazilian team of all-time thrashed the ultra-defensive Italians in the 1970 World Cup final, and where Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal helped guide Argentina to a memorable victory over England in the quarter-finals en route to winning it all in the 1986 tournament.

It has also been a graveyard for Canada’s men’s team, an unwelcoming venue where the side’s fleeting aspirations have routinely gone to die spectacular deaths. Canada has never won at Estadio Azteca, its track record of futility there including a spectacular 8-0 loss at the 1993 Gold Cup, as well as a pair of 4-0 setbacks.

With a seating capacity of over 85,000, the stadium can be an intimidating place for visiting teams under the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, it is a hostile pit: fans in the terraces have been known to throw plastic bags of urine and loaded diapers at opposing players whenever they get near the touchline.

The Canadian men’s team returns to Estadio Azteca on Thursday night when it will play its biggest game in years, facing heavily-favoured Mexico in a crucial match that could go a long way in determining whether or not it will qualify for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Canada opened its account in the final stage of the Concacaf World Cup qualifiers last month with a pair of respectable draws against the United States and Honduras, before earning a comprehensive 3-0 home win over El Salvador.

With five points, Canada sits in a three-way tie for second place in the table with the U.S. and Panama. Mexico tops the group with seven points (two wins and a draw). The top three teams amongst the eight competing nations at the end of the 14-match group stage, which runs until next March, automatically earn a spot at the World Cup.

The men’s team hasn’t made it this far in the World Cup qualifying process since the buildup to the 1998 tournament in France. Back then, the Canadians washed out in spectacular fashion, finishing dead last in the table with just one win from 10 matches. Canada is No. 51 in the current FIFA world rankings, well behind ninth-ranked Mexico, but this is not the same Canadian team that has long served as doormats for Concacaf heavyweights to walk all over.

Canada has been on the rise ever since John Herdman’s appointment in 2018, and has firmly established itself among the elite teams in the Concacaf region. More Canadian players than ever before are plying their trades for big clubs across Europe, including fullback Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), and forwards Jonathan David (Lille OSC) and Cyle Larin (Besiktas).

They are complemented by a talented group of domestic-based stars, Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio and Samuel Piette of CF Montreal foremost among them, who have taken MLS by storm in recent years.

Herdman's side issued a stern warning to the rest of Concacaf by breezing through the preliminary rounds of World Cup qualifying and reaching the final four of this summer’s Gold Cup, its best showing in 14 years. Canada succumbed to Mexico in the semifinals in Houston, losing 2-1 via a goal scored deep into injury time, but the Canadians gave as good as they got from the Mexicans, pushing them to the brink of elimination.

Mexico walked away from that game with a newfound respect for Canada, but even still, it’ll be considered the heavy favourite in Thursday’s encounter, and when you look at the history between these two nations it’s not difficult to understand why.

Canada has never defeated Mexico in a World Cup qualifier and it has never won on Mexican soil in any competition. El Tri haven't lost in their last 15 games overall at Estadio Azteca, a stretch that dates back to 2013.

Canada famously defeated Mexico 2-1 in the quarter-finals of the 2000 Gold Cup in the U.S. en route to winning the competition for the first and only time. That was the Canadians’ last win over the Mexicans. Since then, Canada is winless in nine matches vs. Mexico (with seven losses), and has been outscored 18-5 in that run.

In total, the Canadians have won just three times in 36 previous meetings against the Mexicans, so Thursday’s game doesn’t just represent a huge mountain for them to climb - this is their Mount Everest.

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. To check out TFC Republic, click here.

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