World Cup 2022: Canada confident ahead of opener vs. Belgium
The stage is set for Canada's long-awaited return to the FIFA World Cup.
We're only hours away from the Canadians kicking off their adventure — 36 years in the making — in Qatar with a game against Belgium at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.
But Wednesday's clash between Canada the world No. 2 won't just be your run-of-the-mill, David vs Goliath type matchup.
Belgium's golden generation, led by world-class talents like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, is approaching its twilight years. Despite sitting near the top of the FIFA rankings for the better part of the last decade, and even topping the list at some point, the country has nothing to show for its remarkable talent and development.
Enter Canada, whose impressive run through CONCACAF qualifying has many labelling their current crop of young stars as Canadian men's soccer's golden generation, led by superstar Alphonso Davies and future stars Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan and Stephen Eustaquio.
And while it may be the nation's first appearance at the tournament since 1986, the players maintain they're not in Qatar to simply make up the numbers.
"[We're] beyond excited that we made it to the world's biggest stage, but I just want to be clear, that we're not here just to enjoy or participate," veteran defender Steven Vitoria said. "We're here to get a job done."
While the challenges in a tricky Group F will come hard and fast, the players relish the opportunity to measure themselves against some of the world's best talents.
"I think every player's dream is to play against the best, and I think everyone is trying to level up to see where they are against the best players and the best teams," said striker Ike Ugbo. "So I think it's a good challenge, for sure."
John Herdman's squad does not seem short on confidence, either, despite facing down a European juggernaut midweek.
“We don’t hope any more, we believe,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio on Sunday. “We’re very confident in ourselves. We want to show that we are a football nation, that we can compete with the best in the world.”
Belgium enters Matchday 1 in less-than-ideal form, having lost 2-1 to Egypt in a pre-tournament warmup game last Friday. While the Red Devils expect their leader De Bruyne to be firing on all cylinders to start the tournament, the same cannot be said for some of their other regulars. Lukaku will miss the game after failing to recover from a nagging injury in time, while captain Hazard has barely featured for Spanish club Real Madrid this season, and has not been in his characteristic game-changing form for a long time.
Count out Belgium at your own risk, as this core of players have seen just about everything major international competitions could throw at them, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and reaching the quarter-finals of the last two UEFA European Championships. Manager Roberto Martinez will be anxious to finally claim the country's first-ever international trophy after six years on the job, and with his stars still at the peak of their powers.
This is likely to be Belgium's Last Dance, but will they get their fairytale ending?
"We know we're coming up against a team that have been together for six, seven years; a team that has grown together, there's not much they haven't seen together," Herdman said on Tuesday. "We've got to understand that there are moments in the game where they'll take control, but we have an element of not fearing certain parts of what Belgium bring, because it's all new to us.
"There will be a naivety that will work for us, but it can also work against us."
Canada's youthful legs will hope to put a damper on the Flemish parade, and their best shot at getting a draw - or an unlikely win - over their opponents will come if they take the game to them, using their speed and counter movements to stretch out the fifth-oldest squad in the tournament.
Belgium looks like it's clinging onto the past, while Canada has everything to look forward to in the future. The boys in red and white believe they're ready to take anybody on.
“On any given day, any team can beat anyone,” said David. “If it falls on the right day, of course we can win.”
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