O’CONNOR-CLARKE: CanMNT’s euphoric moment must be savoured as new, World Cup-bound era begins

Let others praise the ancient times; I am glad I was born in these. — Ovid

Not even a minute after the ninetieth on Sunday afternoon, the referee’s whistle sounded three times at BMO Field and the football world became slightly different.

You see, there’s a difference between knowing something is about to happen, and seeing it actually happen. That whistle was, at last, the triumphant blast that heralded a new era in Canadian soccer: No longer were the men’s national team, as they had been for several weeks, “all-but-guaranteed” to qualify for the World Cup. No, they’d actually qualified. It was done.

On Monday morning — just three days more than a year since this qualification adventure began, with a 5-1 win over Bermuda in an empty stadium — the Canadian men’s national team can officially call themselves participants in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

As the match ended on Sunday, BMO Field erupted with the kind of unbridled euphoria that only comes after decades of hurt. Not all of the revellers have been along for all 36 years, of course; legions of new fans have come on board with every successive triumph of this team. But, regardless of when the journey started for each individual fan, this crossing of the finish line must be celebrated.

I say “must” because such a turning point in Canadian football history cannot go inadequately marked. The truth is that a moment like this will never happen again.

It’s been a theme lurking in the background of this qualification run, but now it floats to the surface. The 2022 cycle was Canada’s last chance to fully earn their spot on the global stage before one is handed to them for free as co-hosts of the 2026 dance. So, the four years after Qatar will not quite have the same feeling, as John Herdman’s men try to maintain their competitive edge without this heated qualification gauntlet.

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Even beyond then, the mystique of qualifying for a World Cup will never quite be the same. Once the tournament expands from 32 to 48 nations — as it will after 2022 — then the road through Concacaf will be much more forgiving. And if, as has been rumoured, the gap between World Cups shortens, then the sting of missing out will be slightly less sore, knowing there’s another shot at it next year.

Aside from the concrete changes that make this particular moment unique, though, Canada’s run of the past 12 months has induced feelings that may never be matched in their potency. Think of the demons this generation has exorcised: the Gold Cup collapse against Haiti. Mexico and the Azteca. All the agony in San Pedro Sula. Almost every prior heartbreak of the men’s national team has been redeemed by this group along the way.

Now that Canada have qualified, the 36-year drought is over and no longer hangs over their heads. No more are they burdened by the failures that preceded them, or by their absence from the global conversation the past few decades.

From here, the journey begins anew and the men’s national team program will never be the same. On April 1, people all over the world will hear the name “Canadaread out during the draw. From that day until November, three countries — all of them counted among the club of “footballing nations” from which Canada has been too long counted out — will be intensely focused on this team and how they’ll stack up in Qatar.

Doneil Henry celebrates amid a throng of Canadian players after Jonathan David's goal against Panama. (Canada Soccer)
Doneil Henry celebrates amid a throng of Canadian players after Jonathan David’s goal against Panama. (Canada Soccer)

Red maple leaves will continue to pop up in the footballing mainstream. Canada’s new World Cup kits will be judged alongside those of England, Germany, Brazil, and the other 28 sides. Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David will adorn posters and billboards both at home and abroad, and come next autumn, the most famous pundits across the world will have to discuss this team and its group stage foes.

For many, this writer included, the World Cup is where they first fell in love with football. It has an unmatched power to enthrall the uninitiated — to introduce a newcomer to the true beauty of the sport. Thousands of Canadian kids will tune in to watch this tournament, and they’ll at last (in the men’s game, at least) see themselves represented by the country they call home.

There is truly no greater or more celebrated convergence of the global community than the World Cup. Canada will welcome that convergence in four years’ time — and it’ll do so admirably, as it did during the 2015 Women’s World Cup — but before it does that, it has earned a seat at the table by footballing merit.

The past year’s wild ride is only the beginning of what soccer can become in Canada; the men’s program is exploding concurrently with the women’s team reaching new heights, and our own domestic league finding its place in the world.

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Qualifying for the World Cup goes hand in hand with enormous financial reward for the nations that get there. Just by participating in the men’s tournament, national federations are guaranteed millions of dollars in prize money and funding. That, of course, is on top of the commercial opportunities and other streams that unlock to a country that stamps its ticket to the big show.

From there, it should snowball. That money can have an impact across the Canadian soccer landscape — in both the men’s and women’s games — and continue lifting the country to even greater heights. Mexico and the United States have benefitted from it for years (and it made missing out on 2018 all the more painful for the U.S.), as have the other Concacaf sides to claim a spot. Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras have all done so in recent memory, and their soccer infrastructure has improved as a result.

For players themselves, the impact that playing at a World Cup can have on a career is extraordinary. Every single tournament sees a handful of players, many of them from teams as unlikely as Canada, dazzle on the world stage, which draws the attention of club-level suitors from heights they would not previously have dreamed of reaching.

In theory, this is the moment that — years down the road — we might look back on as the instant Canadian soccer crossed the Rubicon. Here begins the ascent to a new level on the global football ladder.

The moral of this story, then, is that Canadians must enjoy this week — and deserve to, after so many years of disappointment. Whether at an uproarious BMO Field on Sunday or in a quiet, tearful living room elsewhere in the country.

There’s never going to be another day in Canadian soccer quite like Sunday, when 36 years’ worth of heartbreak and disappointment at last give way to jubilation. The group of men who have conquered Concacaf returned home for their triumph, and they deserve their heroes’ welcome.

Samuel Adekugbe celebrates with fans after scoring against the United States for Canada. (Canada Soccer by Beau Chevalier)
Samuel Adekugbe celebrates with fans after scoring against the United States for Canada. (Canada Soccer by Beau Chevalier)