DOHA, Qatar — Canada coach John Herdman called it a “hell of a journey to get here.”
He was referring to the 41st-ranked Canadian men’s journey back to the World Cup after a 36-year absence, but it appears he could have been describing his trip to Canada’s first formal news conference at the men’s soccer showcase in Qatar. Herdman and captain Atiba Hutchinson were 41 minutes late to meet the media Tuesday.
Herdman, who is known for his attention to detail, was asked whether the traffic was bad.
“Yeah it was," said the coach, who looked both embarrassed and angry. "It’s been a little bit of a tricky arrival here. It’s your first World Cup, you don’t really want to be keeping the media waiting so our apologies there. But we’ll look into that internally, make sure everything’s clean for the next time through.”
The abbreviated 16-minute news conference came with some good news about star winger Alphonso Davies, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury ahead of Wednesday's high-profile matchup with the second-ranked Belgians.
"Fonzie's fit now," said Herdman. "He's hit his markers. He's ready to go. He was flying in training (Monday), enjoying himself. Canada's in a position now where we can field our strongest team. Everyone's come through well ... it's exciting times for us now. The dark clouds have shifted."
There had also been question marks over veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who felt something in his abdomen during last week's 2-1 win over Japan, and influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio, who picked up a knock in training before the final warmup game.
Belgium had already announced that Inter Milan star forward Romelu Lukaku, who has 68 goals in 102 internationals, would not be ready for the Canada game due to a hamstring injury. Coach Roberto Martinez said his other 25 players were all fit.
The Canadian pre-match news conference was supposed to start at 3:30 p.m. local time at the tournament's main press centre with the Belgians slated to follow at 4:15. But when the Canadians failed to show, a FIFA organizer said Belgium would go first.
Then the 100-plus media were told Canada had finally arrived and would go first. The Canadian news conference eventually started at 4:11.
Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen eventually took the stage at 4:30, followed by Martinez.
While the Canadian men topped CONCACAF in qualifying, they know they face a next-level challenge here.
"It's a different stage now," said defender Steven Vitoria. "Defensively, attacking, we've just been working hard to close whatever gaps we can ... Just focused on our preparation, knowing that — and our coach was clear with that — what got us here is not going to get us where we want to go."
The World Cup campaign starts with a formidable hurdle for Canada.
The Belgians were ranked No. 1 in the world from October 2018, when they dislodged France, until March 2022 when Brazil took over top spot.
FIFA honoured both Belgium and Canada at the end of 2021 — Belgium for topping the rankings for the fourth year in a row while Canada, then ranked 40th was named the year’s "Most Improved Side" for picked up 130.32 ranking points over the 12-month period.
Canada has since dropped one rung in the ratings, with only five teams in the World Cup field sporting a worse ranking.
"Coming into a game like this, we don't have a great amount to lose," said Herdman. "Just a genuine opportunity to make it our cup final. And that's what it is for Canada."
There is "an element of no fear ... given it's all new to us," he added.
In contrast, Belgium is making its 14th appearance at the finals.
Martinez, a smooth Spaniard whose coaching resume also includes stops with Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton, says he has "huge respect" for what Canada achieved in World Cup qualifying.
"Straight away you know this generation has something very very special," he said.
"They look like a team very clear in their concepts, very, very dynamic, competitive" he added. "A team that knows its strengths — real pace, a team that loves to open their legs and use the big spaces."
He said Belgium faced a similar challenge in World Cup debutant Panama in its opening match four years ago in Russia.
"The only pressure they have is to be as good as they can and enjoy the occasion. And that's very dangerous in football when you're facing a team that's got nothing to lose and they've got a celebration of being there. We saw it with Panama for 50 minutes. It became a very tough battle and we had to find a way.
"And for us we need to match that enthusiasm, that energy and that emotional package and the success that this Canadian team has got together."
The Belgians eventually dispatched Panama 3-0 on the strength of three second-half goals and went on to beat Brazil and England in finishing third at the tournament.
The Canadians will be buoyed by No. 51 Saudi Arabia's 2-1 upset win over No. 3 Argentina on Tuesday. And forward Ike Ugbo says Canada has pinpointed cracks in the star-studded Belgian side.
"Without going into much details, there's a couple of weaknesses in their backline that we can exploit and I think we'll see that match day," said Ugbo, who played in Belgium for Genk before moving to Troyes in France.
That could be Belgium's back three which sees Vertonghen on the left, Toby Alderweireld in the middle and either Leander Dendoncker or Zeno DeBast on the right. While Vertonghen and Alderweireld are vastly experienced, at 35 and 33, respectively, they have a lot of miles on them.
Both Vertonghen (Anderlecht) and Alderweireld (Royal Antwerp) play in Belgium and will be familiar to Canadian winger Tajon Buchanan and forward Cyle Larin, who play at Club Brugge.
But even if the Canadians breach the backline, they will have to beat six-foot-six Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, current holder of the Yashin Trophy as the world's best 'keeper.
Belgium's midfield is world-class with Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), captain Eden Hazard (Real Madrid) and Youri Tielemans (Leicester City)
Lukaku's deputy is Michy Batshuayi, a former Chelsea forward now with Turkey's Fenerbahce. Batshuayi cost Chelsea 33 million pounds ($52.5 million) in 2016.
The Red Devils have not lost their opening match at their last six World Cup appearances, with four wins and two draws. The last time they lost their opener was in 1986, a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Mexico.
In group play, Belgium has won seven straight and is riding a 12-game unbeaten run (7-0-5). Its last opening-round loss came in 1994, a 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia.
"We haven't been used to this stage as a country and we're going to be facing a lot of opponents that are," said Canada defender Steven Vitoria. "No excuses. We know it's going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of smart work all over the pitch. Our brotherhood's going to be tested. But we're excited for all of it."
Canada has played Belgium just once previously — in 1989 at Ottawa where Belgium won 2-0.
Wednesday's game is at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, a 40,000-capacity venue some 20 kilometres west of Doha.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press