Regardless of how long you’ve followed the Canadian men’s national soccer team, these days haven’t come along often.
World Cup cycle after World Cup cycle… the word Sisyphean comes to mind. The vicious loop of hope, progress, and disappointment has come around every four years since Canada’s last appearance in the final round of Concacaf’s qualification format — in 1997, for those unaware (or deliberately forgetting).
Facing the media on Tuesday night, John Herdman conceded as much.
“We haven’t filled this country with trust,” the coach said, adding that the greatest thing missing in Canadian soccer has been trust in that maple leaf crest — something to truly rally behind as a country alongside the great advancements the sport has made in recent years.
Canada’s 4-0 aggregate win over Haiti feels like a real milestone, though; they’ve at last pushed one boulder over the crest of the hill, and although there’s another, steeper hill in front of them now, there’s a genuine feeling of accomplishment. They’re into the Octagon, and they’re in with their best chance at FIFA World Cup qualification in over 20 years.
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It’s a feat worth celebrating, but perhaps more importantly, it’s cause for belief. Hope for this team has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but genuine, earned faith is hard to come by. This Wednesday morning feels different, though: There’s a long road to go before the most beaten-down Canadian supporters can be fully confident, but real belief has begun to creep in.
As Canada stares down its seven foes in the Octagon, vision still tinted by the glow of Tuesday night, perhaps the best sentiment is this:
Why can’t it be Canada at the World Cup in 2022? It’s an oversimplification — the main reason why not is that they have to play 14 games against difficult teams (seven of them on the road), and Canada could very well lose plenty of them. But it feels far more possible now than it did a few months ago; the Octagon is no longer some nebulous distant promised land, nor a vague “bare minimum” standard to reach at the beginning of this cycle.
No, it’s very real now. The fixtures are on a calendar. Canadian fans have begun gaming out the scenarios — if Canada wins five of their seven home games, then takes eight points on the road somehow, 23 points should be enough, right? Breaking down what it really means to be in this final round — to be on the precipice of the world’s greatest spectacle — makes it feel plausible.
They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the chemistry, and they’re just starting to build the track record.
We go into every World Cup qualifying cycle hoping things will be different — “This team is special,” we say. Forgive the cliché, but… that actually seems true this time. Canada has its deepest roster in years, with so many players making an impact at club level. Honestly, just the names Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David should be enough reason to believe this Canadian generation actually is special, not to mention the myriad other ascendant young talents.
Until now, that sentiment was always tied to the caveat that they haven’t accomplished anything yet. Now, though the road ahead is far longer than the one travelled so far, Canada has something to show for its golden generation.
Milan Borjan, resolute in the wake of his fifth consecutive clean sheet, put it best on Tuesday: Gone are the days of a fearful Canadian team.
“Teams should be scared of Canada now,” he said.
The catharsis of the final half hour against Haiti — where Canada swarmed the attacking third with fluid football — surely exorcised a few demons. Could you hear Canadian fans collectively exhale when Cyle Larin scored to make it 3-0 on aggregate? This is the new Canadian national team; at their best, they play beautiful, expansive football, but they can just as well defend and shut things down.
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Of course, if they really do have World Cup aspirations, beating Suriname and Haiti will not be held up as the pinnacle of success — rather, a stepping stone. This team faced genuine challenges over the past two weeks, a trip to Port-au-Prince chief among them.
They’ve travelled across the continent; they’ve adhered to the rigors of COVID-19 protocols; they’ve survived the sweltering, sticky conditions in Haiti. All the while, they’ve entered each and every match (all of them away from home, mind) with the pressure of expectation — knowing that, on paper, they should win.
And, well… they have. They’ve won every game in 2021, all but one of them in convincing fashion. They didn’t concede a single goal to Suriname or Haiti — the latter of which scored three against Canada in 30 minutes of a knockout match just two years ago.
The greatest tests are, obviously, to come: It’s been five years since Canada last heard the din of Estadio Azteca in Mexico, or walked the haunted grounds of San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
Still. John Herdman pleaded with Canadians on Tuesday to follow his side up this mountain. He told us that, if they can go to Haiti and win, they can do so anywhere.
After the past two weeks, they’ve earned some faith. The Octagon will bombard this team with greater tests than they’ve ever faced, but, seriously: