Canada has lessons to learn after glass half-full, half-empty return to World Cup

DOHA, Qatar — The Canadian men leave the World Cup with "our heads up," according to coach John Herdman. They also exit the world stage without a win, at the bottom of Group F and the second team to be eliminated.

It's been a glass half-full, half-empty return to the tournament after a 36-year absence.

The draw was not kind to the 41st-ranked Canadians, pitting them against No. 2 Belgium, No. 12 Croatia and No. 22 Morocco.

There was plenty of class in Group F and it showed against Canada, in some games sooner than later.

Herdman's squad impressed against Belgium, rocking the Red Devils with an aggressive press and pacey attack. Canada deserved to get something out of the match, and could have if not for Thibaut Courtois saving an Alphonso Davies penalty.

The lustre on that shiny opening showing was tarnished somewhat as the Belgians went into a nosedive in their next two games, however.

Davies redeemed himself with a historic goal 68 seconds into the next game against Croatia, capping a simple yet elegant tic-tac-toe play from goalkeeper Milan Borjan to Cyle Larin to Tajon Buchanan, whose lofted cross found Davies' head as the Bayern Munich star soared through the air.

The Croatian midfield of Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) arrived at the tournament with 27 World Cup games under their combined belt already. They kept their heads after conceding early and began to probe a subpar Canadian midfield, with Stephen Eustaquio nursing a sore hamstring and captain Atiba Hutchinson only recently back from a long injury layoff.

The Croatian midfield maestros found cracks that eventually led to a string of goals, putting an end to Canada's hopes of advancing at the tournament.

Facing a motivated Morocco, the Canadians saw firsthand what happens when you make mistakes against quality opposition. You get punished.

Canada trailed 2-0 after 23 minutes but rallied after Herdman, whose head-turning tactical switches were worthy of "The Exorcist," made a string of substitutions at the hour-mark.

"In each of the three games I think we've had something to celebrate … We're a young team. We're developing," a positive Herdman said after the Morocco match. "And it's been a hell of an experience."

Herdman used 19 players at the tournament, with 15 figuring in the starting lineup. Six started all three games: Borjan, Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria, Buchanan and Davies.

Seven players, including the two backup goalkeepers, did not see game action.

Buchanan leaves the tournament as perhaps the Canadian with the most enhanced reputation. The 23-year-old winger/wingback from Belgium's Club Brugge is elusive and exciting, the kind of attacker that defenders don't want to see coming their way.

It was only fitting that Davies, a world-class talent, ended Canada's drought at the men's tournament. One wonders what he could do if Canada gave him one position and told him to go cause havoc instead of moving him around the field like it was a checkerboard.

Eustaquio, when healthy, is the straw that stirs the midfield drink. And at Portuguese club Porto, he is getting Champions League football — the kind of elite competition that helps prepare for the world stage.

Johnston, a fullback/wingback reportedly headed to Glasgow Celtic in the January transfer window, also impressed in Qatar.

"Now our players have been seen. Our coaching staff’s been seen," said Herdman. "We know that people around the world are looking at this country saying, ‘Wow. They’ve got some good young talented players.’”

Exactly who Herdman, who is under contract through 2026, meant in the reference to the coaching staff is unclear.

But as one might expect, Canada found the jump from CONCACAF to the world stage challenging. How successful it was in making the leap is a matter of opinion.

"We always said the world level's the next level," said Herdman, whose record slipped to 32-13-5 as he lost three in a row for the first time at the Canadian men's helm. "And I don't think we were far off."

Canada scored 54 goals across 20 games in qualifying, second only to Japan's 58. But it managed two goals here, one of which was a Moroccan own goal.

According to FIFA, Canada launched 35 attempts on goal with just six on target. Its opposition had a combined 29 attempts on goal, 15 of which were on target.

When it came to the stands, Canada rocked. The fan support was loud, proud and impressive.

A few players will wave goodbye after the tournament. The classy Hutchinson is 39 while Vitoria is 35. Borjan, whose play ranged from stellar to substandard, is 35 but could well keep going if so desired.

Hutchinson reached the 100-cap milestone against Croatia and deserves nothing but praise for his service to his country.

Canada's average age at the World Cup was 26.9, matching the tournament average. But 13 of Herdman's 26-man roster were 25 or younger including Davies, David, Eustaquio and Buchanan.

Herdman himself had a puzzling tournament. Renowned for his speaking and motivational prowess, he seemed nervous at times in front of the world's cameras and ran the gamut from awkward to clichéd.

His rah-rah "We’re going to go and -eff Croatia" message to his players in the Belgium post-match huddle backfired. As one might expect, the proud Croats took it personally.

Herdman knew his team was facing next-level opposition here. Why give it extra motivation?

One also wonders how long the Canadian men need to lean on Herdman's much ballyhooed "brotherhood." Such bonds were likely needed in Canada's climb up the world soccer ladder, knitting the team together in a united cause as reflected by the choice of Drake's "Started From the Bottom" as the soundtrack for the team taking the field for its opener against Belgium.

Elite teams are finely tuned machines rather than bands of brothers. They expect to win because they have the talent, mental fortitude and support required to stay at the top. And because they have done it before.

The Canadian players seem fiercely loyal to their coach, however. He is doing something right.

The view ahead for the Canadian men is bright. As co-host of the 2026 tournament, they will not have to go through qualifying — although FIFA has yet to confirm that.

Herdman's team will be able to choose its opponents. Teams will want to play Canada and perhaps come to Canada, which will help fill Canada Soccer's pockets.

The organization itself also has work to do.

With some 60 to 65 full-time staff — U.S. Soccer has 249 in comparison — Canada Soccer was stretched thin as a congested World Cup qualifying campaign turned into a short runway to the World Cup.

It still managed to pull off wins off the field with a successful ticket lottery for Canadian supporters and a "friends and family" travel package for the players that drew positive reviews. Now it has to seal the deal with its players on a labour agreement with US$9 million in prize money to be divided up (Canada Soccer got another US$1.5 million from FIFA to prepare for the tournament).

Canada Soccer House, a poolside home away from home for Canadian fans, proved to be a hit despite its $249 entry fee (which came with food and drink).

But as at previous competitions, Canada Soccer seemed subservient to its players when it came to media duties. It took a mini-media uprising to get Davies in front of the cameras at the team's training facility.

Successful companies don't hide their assets. They make them available.

Canada Soccer also failed to do pretty much anything on time at the tournament.

Arriving 41 minutes late for your first World Cup news conference in 36 years is not a good look. Herdman appeared both embarrassed and angry as he finally took the podium.

Prior to the Croatia game, an irate FIFA official screamed at the Canadian team to get in place for the traditional pre-game team photo so the match could kick off on time. The entire world was literally waiting.

There are lessons to be learned on and off the field ahead of 2026.

Canada returns to action in March with CONCACAF Nations League matches, playing at No. 86 Curaçao on March 23 before hosting No. 80 Honduras on March 28. Herdman will have to sit out the Curaçao game after getting red-carded in Honduras in June.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press