DOHA, Qatar — The day after Canada's World Cup opener, defender Kamal Miller was still marvelling at the loud and proud Canadian contingent at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
The crowd of 40,432 seemed filled with Canadians celebrating their team's return to the men's soccer showcase after a 36-year absence.
"It was incredible," said Miller. "Surprising as well, just to see the amount of travellers we had and the amount of Canadian flags. It was tough to spot the Belgian fans.
"Right away they carried us through the whole game. From when we first walked out on the pitch, to the reception from warmup, 'O Canada' was ringing through the whole stadium, echoing. It gave us all goosebumps. And it felt like a home game, honestly — we felt like we had that 12th man. And the crowd definitely did their part to push us through the whole game."
Added coach John Herdman: "They were brilliant."
And resourceful in plotting the 10,000-plus kilometre trip to Doha.
After a 1-0 loss to second-ranked Belgium in the opener, the fans' next chance to cheer on the team comes Sunday, when the 41st-ranked Canadians take on No. 12 Croatia at Khalifa Stadium. A loss and Canada will be eliminated from advancing out of the preliminary round.
Even without a team to support, Canadians have long been enthusiastic participants at the men's World Cup. Canada was the top non-participating FIFA member association in terms of ticket sales at the 2010 tournament in South Africa and ranked in the top 10 in 2014 in Brazil.
In 2010, Canada ranked seventh among all countries — participating or not — in terms of country of residence ticket sales at 17,493. In 2014, the figure was 22,942, good for 11th place in world sales. Four years ago in Russia, Canada ranked 17th at 18,131.
Global Affairs Canada estimates this World Cup will draw 20,000 to 25,000 Canadians to Qatar.
There are several ways to get tournament tickets, with Canadians benefiting this time from having an invitation to the party.
For games involving Canada, Canadians had access to eight per cent of the stadium's "purchasable quota" — which is what's left when tickets allocated to FIFA, sponsors and the media, among others, are taken out.
Fans could also take their chance through FIFA's worldwide ticket lottery.
The Canada allotment covers what FIFA calls the PMA (participating member association) Football Community Allocation and PMA Supporters Allocation.
At Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the Canadian football community — including the team's so-called friends and family — was behind the Canadian bench. Others, many from the Voyageurs supporters group, were in a bank of seats in a pumped-up corner on the opposite side.
"They're really looking to create that atmosphere that you'd feel that the country is behind you," Sandra Gage, Canada Soccer's chief marketing officer, said of FIFA's stadium ticket blueprint.
Herdman had his wife and two kids two rows behind him at the Belgium match Wednesday, relating later how he turned around and locked eyes with 18-year-old son Jay, a New Zealand youth international (he was born there while Herdman was coaching in New Zealand) when Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio nutmegged Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne.
"It was an amazing moment to share that moment with my son," said the Canada coach.
"You realize the impact this is having on people," he added. "My wife was showing us pictures of the fans leaving the stadium. I mean these are going to some amazing memories. I'm privileged to be part of it."
Same for Miller, who had tears running down his face during "O Canada."
"All the emotions hit me during the anthem," he said. "The journey it took to get there. If you compare a lot of the stories from our guys to other teams in the tournament, I think we're probably one of the teams with the most unconventional route to the World Cup.
"Just seeing my family there — locking eyes with my mom and my dad — all the emotions hit at once and (I was) also thankful to be a Canadian in that moment and represent my country."
Canada star Alphonso Davies also has his parents here. Captain Atiba Hutchinson had his brother and sister in the stands.
Like most country associations, Canada Soccer has an official supporters group that provides access to tickets.
Dubbed Canada Red, the Canadian program now has close to 100,000 members spread across three tiers — Canada Red (free), Canada Red and White ($50 annually) and Canada Red and Gold ($150 annually). The two top tiers were added earlier this year, just in advance of Canada securing World Cup qualification.
Canada Soccer promises that every dollar collected is "reinvested into Canada Soccer programs that benefit our national teams as well as development initiatives across the country."
Canada Red members received distinct codes to enter a ticket lottery for inventory put aside for Canada as a participating nation. The Canada Red and Gold got the "highest priority" in the weighted random draw conducted by Canada Soccer, followed by Canada Red and White and Canada Red.
In developing the program and infrastructure needed to make the ticket pipeline work, Canada Soccer studied the best practices of U.S. Soccer and England's Football Association.
But no matter the framework, it's a numbers game with demand outstretching supply.
Those who got to buy tickets through their PMA supporters code had the option to tickets priced at 250 Qatari Riyal ($91.85), 600 Riyal ($220.40) or 800 Riyal ($293.90).
Canadians who wanted deluxe VIP packages were directed to FIFA's match hospitality division.
Gage said the ticket process ran smoothly, with FIFA providing assistance.
"The reality is we've run a World Cup before on home soil," said Gage, referencing the 2015 Women's World Cup and a slew of FIFA youth competitions. "So a FIFA ticketing process is not new to us and we have experience in actually managing that process."
Canada Soccer worked with the men's players association on the friends and family package, which is part of the ongoing labour talk with the men's and women's squads.
Canada Soccer staff were seconded to support the program, which offers access to accommodations, support for air travel, access to tickets, Canada Soccer House and local excursions.
Gage says there are some 275 so-called friends and family in Qatar.
Friends and family are picked up at the airport and taken to their accommodations, as well as the stadium game-day where they have a dedicated entrance.
"it's really a concierge-level service," said Gage.
They get access to accommodations, available through FIFA, at locked-in room rates that are better than what they would pay on the open market.
"It's basically taking the system we've built to support them home and bringing it to Doha," said Gage.
Canada Soccer will offer the same program for the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
Friends and family also get access to a dedicated section at Canada Soccer House, an outdoor space complete with pool on the fifth floor of the Hilton Pearl Doha. It's a place to hang out, watch games on a big screen and eat and drink.
For others, the going rate for a visit to Canada Soccer House is $249 for an adult and $99 for a child. That includes up to seven drinks per adult, "plus gifting."
"Basically we're running that on a cost-recovery basis," said Gage.
The space, which can accommodate around 500 people, is impressive at night, with the outdoor patio surrounded by neon buildings giving it a Las Vegas-like vibe.
"I think in any World Cup, this is an undertaking," Gage said of setting up such a space. "In a country like Qatar where there are more restrictions … it was even more of an undertaking. But we were committed to make sure that Canadian fans who came to Qatar had a place to call home."
The space will be open as long as Canada is in the tournament.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press