Returning to soccer’s biggest stage after 36 years, Canada dared to dream big.
Expectations of observers and prognosticators mattered little. Plenty have considered qualification for the tournament itself to be a success, others wanted to avoid embarrassment. Some dreamt of Canada scoring its first-ever men’s World Cup goal and they’ll still have to wait. Internally, however, the team had a different dream.
Manager John Herdman’s men wanted to finish top of the group. They stepped onto the pitch Wednesday and outplayed Belgium, a team that has been a perennial dark horse to win it all and has flirted with contender status as well. But in the end, Canada fell short, losing 1-0.
“I’m proud of the performance but you need to take three points in your first game,” Herdman said after the match. “We had an opportunity tonight to be top of the group, that was the mission, and we missed it. I’m proud of the performance. These lads put a shift in. They showed that they can live on this stage and I think they made the fans proud and made them feel like they belong here and that was important for us.”
Earlier in the tournament, Argentina had extended stretches of dominance in its match against Saudi Arabia and lost, as did Germany against Japan. That Canada has put itself in the same boat of emotions as those powerhouses is telling. Like them, they will have to do what great sides do: let the past be the past and bounce back against Croatia on Sunday.
Herdman recalled coaching the Canadian women when they lost their opening match of the 2012 Olympics and how they went on to win the bronze medal. He’s challenging this men’s team to recognize what they accomplished Wednesday beyond the result and repeat the trick.
“I just showed them the stats, I just showed them they belong here, told them they belong here,” Herdman said of his post-game speech to the team. “We’re gonna go and eff Croatia, that’s as simple as it gets. That’s our next mission now.”
Canadian star Alphonso Davies had a good game overall but will likely have the most regret after missing an 11th minute penalty kick.
“It happens,” Davies said. “You pick a side, goalkeeper guessed correctly, he saves it or you get lucky and put it in. Obviously, I’ve got to keep my head up after that but definitely keep going stronger.”
Through all of qualifying and now this first match against Belgium, Canada has turned a lot of doubters into believers. Still, this step against a team that went to the World Cup semifinal in 2018 before losing to eventual champion France, and then to the Euro 2020 quarterfinal before losing to eventual champion Italy, is a big one.
The context of what Canada accomplished in this match shouldn’t be lost because of how wasteful the team was in the final third. Coming in, Canada was the team expected to play this match on the counter with Belgium controlling the game, but it was not to be.
Defence was considered a weak point for Canada, and while they will discuss internally what went wrong with the long ball from Toby Alderweireld that found Michy Batshuayi for the only goal of the match, Kamal Miller was an absolute warrior on the pitch and Richie Laryea poured every last drop of his heart and soul into this match.
In the final tally beyond the score, Canada outshot Belgium 22-9, earned a penalty, and had a case for a couple more. More than any goal, the men in red and white showed they absolutely belong at the World Cup.
“This tournament is all about getting three points,” Davies said. “Playing the second-best team in the world is not easy but I think we came out here, we did our best, and we showed that we belong on this stage. We showed that we can play at this level.”
Canada still has a lot of firsts left to achieve at the World Cup and that quest continues on Sunday. Croatia will bring their own sense of urgency after drawing 0-0 with Morocco, and that is a point of solace for Canada in knowing that last place in the group currently only has them one point behind both those teams.
“It’s tough, it’s tough,” Davies said. “Definitely this next game we’re gonna give our all, we’re going to perform how we did today and hopefully it goes our way. We know that we need to score goals and we need to get three points to move on.”
This team believed it could win the group when no one did. Now, everyone saw enough to believe Canada can get out of it.