LAS VEGAS – Situated on the Portuguese Riviera is a town known as Estoril.
To many this is a tourist destination, featuring high end hotels, resorts and one of Europe’s most popular casinos. Formula One racing fans know it better as the home of the Portuguese Grand Prix from 1984 to 1996.
Back in 1988, F1 was dominated by McLaren-Honda and its two star drivers, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. In an era where cars broke down regularly, the pair still managed to win almost everything that year. If race wins were like Concacaf titles, Prost and Senna were to F1 what Mexico and the U.S. have been to this region in the international men’s game.
The Portuguese Grand Prix was the 13th of 16 to be held that season. On a stinking hot September Sunday on the coast, tensions were high, and as the two once again battled at the front for dominance they found themselves wheel-to-wheel less than 15cm apart and close to crashing into the pit wall. Prost, the veteran Frenchman known as the ‘professor’, was desperately holding on to the notion he was still the best. Senna, the younger challenger to the crown, was not only taking over that role but was also taking over the team and the sport.
On this occasion, though, Prost was the one overtaking him, or at least trying to. Senna, never one to be bullied, edged his rival closer and closer to the wall. The intimidation was clear to see. Prost would win the race, Senna would go on to win the championship. The more emotional Prost, meanwhile, would privately question Senna’s motives, before asking him: ‘I didn’t realize you wanted the championship that badly?’
It was a major chapter in one of sport’s most bitter rivalries. There would be more chapters. F1 fans will know all about Imola’s first corner fiasco, collisions in Japan and much more. Senna vs. Prost was all that mattered in that sport at the time. They despised each other and for a long stretch of time all each cared about was beating each other, because the rest of the competition were so irrelevant they didn’t matter.
This is how games have played out in Concacaf for over two decades. Like Prost and Senna, rivals Mexico and the United States have operated at such a high level within their region no one else came close. Costa Rica managed to win a World Cup qualifying cycle, for what that is worth, back in 2002 but as soon as the actual World Cup came around the two giants of the regions were the ones playing knockout games at the biggest tournament. Canada won the most recent World Cup group, but it was the United States who made the knock out round in Qatar. No matter the race — Gold Cups, Nations League Finals — the winners since 2002 have always been the same: USA, Mexico, USA, USA, Mexico, Mexico, USA, Mexico, USA, Mexico, USA, USA.
Five years on from the 1988 race, with both drivers still considered to be the best pair in the sport, times were changing. Back in Estoril for the 1993 Portuguese Grand Prix, Prost was nothing more than a paper champion, winning a crown in cruise mode with no competition consistent enough yet to mount a serious challenge. Senna’s McLaren team were in transition and had lost Honda and their dominance. A young upstart called Michael Schumacher would win that day. As the rich and famous of F1 in Estoril entered the casino it was clear they were being dealt a different hand on and off the track.
The Schumacher era would go on change the sport forever and although all of his eventual crowns came once Senna – tragically – and Prost had left the sport, his legacy as one of the greatest ever is cemented because he did race against both of them and beat them.
This brings us to Canada. Striker Cyle Larin in March said he believed this team were already ‘kings of Concacaf’ following a regional World Cup qualifying campaign that saw them top the group heading into Qatar. Internally, no one would argue with that. Canada have a right to feel they belong here now. They have shown over two years that they can compete and beat Mexico and the United States at home. While in the past they would approach games hoping they can win them, this group approaches games knowing they can win them. In the mental aspect of sports, the distance travelled from hoping to believing is substantial.
Externally however, few in the Mexico and USA camps feel the same way about them. Canada have made strides. They have progressed from irrelevance to respected. This was evident on the pitch and off it. Do not forget Mexican players, who boarded a flight to North America with Stephen Eustáquio during World Cup qualifying, showed the midfielder everything he needed to see when they talked about Canada and how difficult they can be to play. Yet, Canada still await true vindication. Only a trophy will bring that.
Back in 1988, when Prost and Senna would dominate, occasionally they’d have car issues and be forced to see others temporarily get ahead of them. Ferrari even found a way to win at home in one race. Yet, no one was close enough to truly compete for the title and with that their rivals were respected but never feared.
This is where Canada are now, except this is much closer to 1993 than 1988 on the track. For years Canada have been trampled on and have been nothing more than a pretender. Now they find themselves a serious contender. In order, though, for them to be taken seriously and be seen as the best in this region they have to win the Nations League Final on Sunday here in Las Vegas.
Mexico are a side in shambles and are at their lowest point in decades. Yet, just like Senna was with Prost, anyone who watched their semifinal on Thursday would tell you that for the USA they still remained their greatest foe. It was not simply enough for them to beat them comfortably, they wanted to fight them and humiliate them. Mission accomplished.
Now comes Canada as the last team in the way of another crown for the Americans, and that means the attention turns back on themselves. This is not about beating Canada for the U.S., this is about winning another trophy and continuing to establish what many already think and remain the region’s best team.
For Canada, this is about beating the U.S. This is about taking the opportunity now and showing they can be Concacaf champions. They have played a lot of big games to prepare them for this moment, but arguably this will be their biggest between now and hosting the World Cup in 2026. Gold Cups have taken a back seat to other tournaments in terms of importance for European based players desperate for time off, and now with a Copa América in 2024 thrown in there will be no shortage of important games to come. None, though, as important as this one right now.
The evolution is close to being complete. Like many drivers watching and struggling for years behind Prost and Senna, the suffering has been long for Canada. It will be their first final for 23 years but this one presents far more than the ending of a trophy drought. The learning from losing is over. The gap has been narrowed and the time is now to show they are ready to do what they believe they can.
Like that night in Estoril in 1993, times are changing in a different gambling town. All that remains is Canada to complete the job.