Canada proudly waving the flag is pure joy for players, team's long-suffering supporters

·4 min read
Canada's Alistair Johnston (2) parades the flag to celebrate a 2-1 win over Mexico  in a World Cup qualifiers in Edmonton on Nov. 16. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Alistair Johnston (2) parades the flag to celebrate a 2-1 win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifiers in Edmonton on Nov. 16. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press - image credit)

EDMONTON — Success is sometimes accompanied by disquieting effects. In sports, the most successful teams have a habit of becoming joyless. We call them juggernauts, because they turn into machines. For them, losing feels worse than winning feels good. Victory doesn't bring them or their supporters happiness; it brings them relief.

The Canadian men's soccer team has almost always played the underdog. The lack of upward mobility has been maddening for long-time fans. Smaller countries like Trinidad and Tobago or Honduras have beaten us routinely; we've never had a chance against the juggernauts. Canada has appeared in the Men's World Cup only once, in 1986; in three games, that team didn't score a single goal and came back home.

That's the harsh sum of the Canadian men on the global stage: They have provided neither happiness, nor relief. Just a void where feelings should be.

Consider that void filled. With their 2-1 win over Mexico on Tuesday night, the current men's team has infused its followers with emotion.

Pride. Hope. Ambition. Gratitude.

Joy.

The good feelings began surfacing early, when Commonwealth Stadium was transformed by desire and some serious wind chill into Estadio Iceteca, the bone-chilling equivalent of Mexico's famously formidable Azteca. Alistair Johnston, the hardy Canadian defender, emerged to cheers in shirtsleeves. He was a standout in other ways during most of the messy first half, as alight as any fire.

With the half winding down, he decided to chance a long, looping shot toward goal. The rock-hard ball hit the perfectly frozen turf in front of Guillermo Ochoa, the flamboyant Mexican keeper. He spilled it. Cyle Larin pounced, firing the loose ball into the back of the net.

Larin scored again just seven minutes into the second half, toeing home a free kick from Stephen Eustaquio, and all of a sudden Sam Adekugbe was launching himself into a snowbank in iconic celebration. From that delirious moment on, the spiralling Mexicans looked as though the cold and disrespect had turned their will into glass.

WATCH | Larin ties De Rosario's goal record as Canada tops Mexico:

Their 90th-minute goal added some late drama. ("The longest six minutes of my bloody life," head coach John Herdman said of the clock-killing that followed. His principal emotion appeared to be a desperate need for a drink.) So did some post-match chest puffing, but the Mexicans had taken too long to find their fight. Canada — Canada! — stared the juggernaut down, all the way off the field.

Last Friday's win over Costa Rica, weirdly, had more edge to it. Canada was supposed to win that game, which gave that night a weight, a nerviness, to which the Canadian men aren't fully accustomed. The win over Mexico, given El Tri's historic superiority, felt more unburdened. It felt like the best kind of caper.

Canada's men have pulled a similar trick on the Mexicans before. During qualifying in October 1997, they also asked their southern visitors to come to Edmonton. It snowed before the game. The Mexicans had cruised to an earlier win at Azteca; visibly shaken by the cold, they managed only a draw against Canada here.

WATCH | Borjan seals Canada's win over Mexico with key stops:

But that was the sort of hollow victory that for decades we have mistaken for actual triumph. That Canadian team didn't qualify for the World Cup in the end, like the last eight hopefuls in a row. Tuesday's win was a far more meaningful result. It was the start of something rather than the beginning, middle, and end of something all its own, all at once. Undefeated Canada now deservedly sits at the top of the CONCACAF qualifying table with six games to go.

"Not until we get to Qatar," Herdman said when he was asked whether he considered his team among the confederation's elite. "We've won nothing yet."

That's true. Only two points separate first from fourth, one place short of automatic qualification. A lot can happen in six games in CONCACAF, especially since four of Canada's are away.

At the same time, Canada's current run isn't a fluke or an aberration. It's demonstrable. It's earned.

It's also largely unexpected. Perhaps not within this buoyant team, which has always professed an outsized belief in itself, even if those boasts have sounded a little rehearsed to outside ears, a little like psychological theatre. Few observers would have expected to see such an unbroken string of positive results in reality. All of which means the overwhelming feeling for Canada's supporters on Tuesday night was pure, uncut delight.

That's rare, and we should savour it. Maybe it will be a long time before Canada beats Mexico again. Or maybe victories over countries like Mexico will one day feel routine, and then more like an ordeal, and, finally, an obligation. Maybe that's the inevitable cost of arrival.

But if our national side is perhaps on its way to a more clinical standard, it hasn't lost any of its human appeal. There are still lots of smiles. There are still lots of hugs. This Canada is without irony.

And watching them on this unbelievable ride — at long last, and for as long as it lasts — is just so much fun.

WATCH | Bring It In panel discusses latest in CONCACAF WC qualifiers:

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting