DOHA, Qatar—When you sort through the beautiful wreckage of Canada’s 1-0 World Cup loss to Belgium, you can pick up and turn over the Alphonso Davies penalty, a penalty that wasn’t, the one lapse for a goal allowed. You can catalogue the chances that didn’t go in: Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Stephen Eustáquio, for a team that had 16 attempts in the box. A match like that is full of moments that slipped away.
What is left is the feeling: how Canada played. The fearlessness, the collective attack, the physicality, the verve. Canada attacked the Belgians, even bullied them. They have drawn rave reviews from the world for that, even if it was as beautiful losers. The spirit of Canadian soccer was so full of heart. That wasn’t an accident.
“We’ve dissected past 20 games against Belgium … and it looked like if you’re gonna sit back, it can get ugly,” said Canadian defender Alistair Johnston after the loss at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan. “But if you go on the front foot, you give yourself a fighting chance.
“And you know, it’s our first time here in 36 years, and we wanted to go out and not play football that doesn’t really inspire anyone; we wanted to come here and give joy to the Canadian fans. It’s been a long time, it’s been a long wait. Let’s go out there and give them a team they can be proud of.”
It was more than an ethos; it was a discussion. John Herdman has spent his four years as the men’s coach trying to rebuild the bonds between players, and between players and the coaching staff. That meant identifying and empowering leaders, from obvious candidates such as Milan Borjan and Atiba Hutchinson to guys like Doneil Henry. Coming into this World Cup, Herdman decided he wanted to listen more to his players, and they formed a group that sat and decided, from a player perspective, how they wanted to play. He tried to give his players agency and freedom to compete within a team structure.
“I feel like the next level of freedom is letting them be who they want to be in this World Cup, not who I want them to be,” Herdman said in a pre-tournament interview. “Right? Not who I want them to be. Let them be who they want to be, who they want to show the world and Canada who they are.
“I’m just listening and enjoying what I’m hearing, and asking questions to really find out what they want to show themselves as, at this World Cup. So we play with the freedom that I want them to. I want them to enjoy this World Cup.”
That’s what you saw: a team without doubt until some slight hesitation at the final, goal-chance moment. Herdman’s post-match invocation on television afterward that Canada was off to “eff Croatia” has apparently made a big splash in the Croatian media, and Herdman was asked about it by a Croatian reporter Thursday. Herdman cheerfully acknowledged that it wasn’t too polite, but that “in the moment you’re taking your team to that place. We’re here to be fearless.”
And that comes, again, from trust. Herdman and the players are on the same page. As captain Hutchinson said, “We all buy into it and believe in it.”
“John’s been unbelievable,” said Johnston. “The whole coaching staff, they understand that we’re the ones in the field, and they don’t want to put a game plan out there that none of us really feel, or enjoy — you know, it doesn’t resonate with us.
“So it’s been unbelievable in terms of the collaboration from all the guys, and you can just see it on the field. Everyone really seems to be enjoying it out there because we’re doing what we want to do, you know? And we’re trying to play Canadian football that we believe Canadian fans, and us as fans of the game as well, would want to watch.
“I’ll watch the game back tonight. Not gonna get much sleep, but I think just from playing in it, it felt like it was an enjoyable game to watch as a neutral as well. So you know, that’s something we want to be. We want to be exciting, we want to play fearless football, and I think we did that.”
Without the trust Herdman and his staff built, without the brotherhood being rebuilt, and without the willingness to push themselves physically for each other, Canada couldn’t have played like that.
“There’s just a mindset that’s been inculcated into this journey of the team,” said Herdman. “And just the vision of the team has to be represented in the style of play.”
Six months ago he convened a tactical architects meeting, with players represented, and asked how they wanted to play against Belgium. They showed some of Belgium’s best work and the agreement was: let’s attack. Herdman agreed, with a caveat.
“If you go that way, it’s going to hurt,” Herdman said. “It’s not going to be easy. This is going to be pushing some personal bests here. And I was proud. I mean, that’s the stuff as a coach I’m more proud of. You see humans pushing things they’ve not thought was possible. So some of the players last night, their physical metrics will blow their own minds.”
Canada has a few days to recover for Croatia, where the nation’s World Cup will either be given new life or effectively snuffed out. Croatia will know what Canada can do; Canada will know what Canada can do. And they will try to make people proud, again.
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