Canada’s history in the world’s game has been one of feast or famine. Playing officially for the first time in 1924 (although they have an unofficial match on the books dating back to 1885), the huge North America nation – known for a sporting devotion to ice hockey – has failed to find consistency in their footballing ability. They have, however, experienced moments of great triumph, most notably qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ finals in Mexico in 1986 and shocking the region’s big two of Mexico and bordering neighbours USA by picking up a CONCACAF Gold Cup crown under the tutelage of current Australia coach Holger Osieck.

New manager Stephen Hart, a former Trinidad and Tobago international who earned seven caps for the Soca Warriors, is left with the task of reviving those glory days and carving out a path for steadier development and performance on the international stage. Team Canada’s start to 2011 is cause for optimism as it comes with some heartening results and a nine-point jump up in the most recent release of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Recent friendly action has seen the team beat Belarus 1-0 in Turkey. A lone goal from defender Andre Hainault was the decider in a game that Hart described as “a mixed performance.” Regardless of the coach’s assessment, the result was significantly better than the drab 1-0 loss to Greece in Larissa in February, Canada’s only other game so far this year after ending 2010 with a creditable draw against Ukraine.

Canada are now up to 75th overall in the world and seventh in their CONCACAF zone. Though it is still a long way off their best-ever ranking of 40th achieved in 1996, it is cause for hope in the camp and on the terraces too.

The next opportunity for Hart to take his side into competitive action will be at the 2011 Gold Cup this June in the USA. The Canadians, or the Canucks as they are fondly known, have been drawn into Group C alongside the USA, who knocked the men in red out at the semi-final stage of the 2007 finals, and Caribbean up-and-comers Guadeloupe. Panama is the other team in the section and coach Hart rates them as one of the trickier sides to face: “They [Panama] have been playing a very dynamic sort of game, very athletic.”

There will be a drive in the side to re-create the heroics of 2000, when Canada defeated Mexico and Colombia to lift the country’s only regional title and fill up some space in a decidedly sparse trophy cabinet, in the process becoming the only side other than Mexico or the USA to win the Gold Cup. Hart and his men will prepare for this latest instalment of the Gold Cup finals with a friendly against Ecuador on the first of June.

The Gold Cup will act as the logical springboard for a run toward the next FIFA World Cup in Brazil 2014. With standout players like captain and all-time caps leader Paul Stalteri of Borussia Monchengladbach and PSV Eindhoven’s rising star Atiba Hutchinson, Hart hopes he has enough firepower to send Canada to its first world finals in 25 years, or at least do better than the poor showings they put in over the past two qualifying cycles, going out on both occasions at the first group stage.

“The World Cup qualification is everything to us, everything to us. That’s what we want,” said a determined coach as he looks to end the downward trajectory and aim Canada skywards once again.

The World Cup qualification is everything to us, everything to us.

Stephen Hart, Canada coach.