With swaggering style and self-belief, Canada showed they belong on the world stage


Canada’s sword is here in Qatar, and it is firmly planted in the ground for everyone to see.

On the eve of Canada’s first World Cup match in 36 years, captain Atiba Hutchinson stood in the middle of his gathered teammates and told them, confidently, “We’re here now. Let’s go and make the most of this. Let’s put our country on the map.”

The 39-year-old took the medieval-style sword that head coach John Herdman had designed especially for the team through World Cup qualifying by a sword maker in Canada with the latin words “Nihil timendum est”(Fear nothing) on it, and planted it firmly in the centre of the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium pitch, to the rousing cheers of his teammates.

This is a tradition for this team that has worked, almost to perfection, throughout qualifying. Canada wanted to announce themselves first in a region in which they long faltered.

“(The sword) symbolizes the warrior spirit of our team,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio. “It represents the new Canada.”

Yes, but the World Cup is different. Around Doha, many have wondered how this young, upstart team would play against the world’s best. On Wednesday against Belgium, FIFA’s No. 2-ranked team in the world,  Canada showed that their sword, as it were, wouldn’t move an inch.

Despite a 1-0 loss, Canada’s convincing performance was full of the kind of swashbuckling, pacey gusto that became their hallmark through qualifying. Their performance proved they belong at the World Cup.

“We proved today that we can compete with the best in the world. We deserved to win that game today,” said Osorio.

If what they did against Belgium is any indication, their objectives in Qatar are very different from what some on the outside of the team believed they were capable of.

It was fair to think that the measuring stick for Canada in Qatar was going to be less about results and more about performance. They might be the only team in this tournament who could loss three straight matches and not have to fire their head coach because of how far they’ve come under Herdman. If the effort and will was there, the technical development in players would come. And then, by 2026, when Canada co-hosts the World Cup, their best young players will hopefully be at their peak, able to show they’re capable of upsetting globally-recognized squads.

And yet as Canada’s fans, who might not have outnumbered Belgium’s but beat them on decibel levels, chanted “This is our house.” At a World Cup match. It was then that it became clear the team’s swaggering attitude had brought them onto the world stage well ahead of schedule.

“I told (the players) they belong here, and we’re going to go and ‘F’ Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets,” said Herdman after the game as he looked forward to their next, equally talented, opponent: Croatia.

The dominance of Canada’s performance was evident to the eyes and in the numbers. They attacked at will with their width and quick passing structures. Canada’s expected goals were 2.63 to Belgium’s 0.77. Canada had 22 total shots to Belgium’s nine. Canada had three big chances (“a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score,” according to Opta) to Belgium’s zero. Canada should have walked away with a win, but the game doesn’t always go as it should.

“For us to keep a clean sheet against a team like that is satisfactory,” said Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez.

Three years ago, a compliment like that coming from Belgium’s manager would have been impossible to materialize. But Martinez might have been paying tribute to a Canadian stereotypes by simply being polite, because a very tactically-astute Belgium team had virtually no answer for a Canada team that swarmed them with speed, verticality and most importantly, unnerving self-belief.

You can stick your hand into a red and black checkered toque and pull out any number of examples of this Canada team showing up when it mattered, and demonstrating their DNA:

Tajon Buchanan buzzed by Belgium players convincingly and routinely, and then stood over some of those same players he tackled as if he was playing in a Sunday men’s league.

Jonathan David got on his horse to track back three-quarters of the length of the field after Belgium began a counter-attack in added time of the first half.

Seconds after halftime, Stephen Eustaquio could have offered to help pick Kevin De Bruyne up off the ground after he made him look foolish with a devilish nutmeg.

Junior Hoilett pressed Belgium in the 54th minute and won a corner he had no business winning.

Kamal Miller flexed his muscles after perfectly executing a tackle in the 66th minute.

Richie Laryea busted up a Michi Batshuayi shot in the box in the 68th minute, from behind, with a perfect sliding tackle, and flexed just as hard.

It showed a Canada team playing with the same bravado they did throughout CONCACAF qualifying. But in the World Cup, teams that rely on emotion can get found out by more tactically astute opponents.

It took one direct pass through the middle for Belgium to cut through Canada, and expose them with the kind of precise finishing from Batshuayi that Canada lacked on the day. But that was essentially all Belgium threw at Canada.

That lack of precise finishing was on display during Alphonso Davies’ 11th minute penalty.

Davies had previously only taken two penalties in his career for Canada. Yes, he converted them both, but those penalties were against the Cayman Islands and Curacao. Thibaut Courtois is among the world’s very best goalkeepers. So it felt like this was going to be Jonathan David’s penalty to take, especially considering he’s 5-for-7 in the last two years with Lille from the spot.

But again, the Canadian bravado is real. If Canada are to have any chance of getting out of the group stage at this World Cup, Davies will have to be at his all-world best. Canada were always going to lean on their heart in this game, as has been their custom since Herdman took over. The emotional pull of this team is very real: They will brag about how it is their “brotherhood” that gets them through games to anyone who listens. Tactical ingenuity comes second.

But with just 12 yards separating Canada from their first ever World Cup goal, you wonder if relying more on the head than the heart would have made the distance that much shorter. Courtois read Davies’ penalty attempt perfectly, and Canada’s best chance slipped away.

“We just couldn’t get that goal we were looking for to break the ice. But that game’s over, you learn from it, take the positives from it,” said Hutchinson with a smile, because, well, why wouldn’t he smile?

Canada don’t have any need to kid themselves after that performance.

Up against an experienced Belgium team, it was worth wondering if they would deviate from their high-flying approach when the lights were their brightest. But they didn’t. This is the attitude Canada has manifested in their time under Herdman. They’re going to ride or die through this World Cup with their foot perpetually on the gas.

Two hours before kick-off (two hours!) it looked like 99 percent of the fans in their seats were Canadian. Their optimism was palpable on the other side of the stadium, as chants of “1986, baby!” rung out out loud. Canadians here are under no illusion as to who they are: underdogs, virtual unknowns on the global stage, but very, very… very happy to be here.

Hours later, after a game that Canada indeed should have won, their fans, the players, and well, everyone that is just getting introduced to this team, is likely going to expect more.

And that’s what this team wants: To be taken seriously in the global soccer conversation.

There’s no glossing over them any longer.

“We showed that we can go out there and play with some of the best,” said Hutchinson. “That’s what we all believed before coming into this tournament.”

(Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)


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