Qualifying for next year’s International Soccer Federation (FIFA) Under-17 World Cup will not be easy for Canada.
The national men’s side has drawn five-time regional champions, Mexico, Panama, which was the runner-up to the Mexicans in last year’s Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) series and 2013 regional semi-finalists Costa Rica in its group for next year’s regional competition in Honduras.
Haiti and St. Lucia complete the cluster in the new format of six-team groups that will see the two group winners advance to the tournament final and the second and third-place teams crossover with the other group to play for the final FIFA Under-17 World Cup places.
The other group comprises host country Honduras, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, the United States, Cuba and the winner of a January playoff featuring Guatemala and El Salvador.
National coach, Sean Fleming, acknowledged that Canada is in a challenging group.
“You have the top two Central American countries that qualified and, of course, Mexico as well,” he said. “Haiti has come into these tournaments in the past and has done very well. Our first game is against Haiti and it’s very important in this tournament that you get off to a good start, so we’ve got to hope that we can do that.”
Mexico captured the FIFA Under-17 crown in 2011 and was the runner-up to Nigeria last year in the United Emirates.
Canada’s first match is against Haiti on February 28. The national side will then meet Costa Rica on March 3, Mexico three days later, St. Lucia on March 9 and Panama on March 12.
“It’s five games in a very pressure-packed environment and you have to get the results, so it’s great,” said Fleming. “The other side of it is you are going to be playing five games in approximately 10 to 11 days. The conditions will be challenging, but these are all things our teams will have to deal with and we will have to be sure we have our depth on our team now.”
Canada has been eliminated in the first round of its six appearances in the FIFA World Cup in 1987, 1989, 1993, 1995, 2011 and 2013.
A total of 24 teams will participate in the 16th biennial tournament to be played from October 17 to November 8.
Australia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Korea Republic and Syria emerged as the top four countries in last September’s Asian Soccer Federation’s qualifying tournament in Thailand and have joined host country Chile as the teams that have already booked their spots.
Four teams will qualify from the African youth championship to be staged in Niger from February 15 to March 1 and the South American tournament in Paraguay next March, while the winner of the Oceanic Soccer Federation competition in Samoa and American Samoa from January 13-17 will claim a World Cup berth.
The top six teams in the 28-team European qualifier that ends in Bulgaria on May 22 will advance to the finals.
Defending champions Nigeria has won the tournament a record four times. Brazil is a three-time champion while Ghana and Mexico have captured two titles.