We been waiting with a perverse blend of heightened anticipation and nerve-wracking trepidation for Canada’s World Cup opener with Belgium on November 23rd. Anticipation because it has been 36 years and more since Canada played in the football’s global showcase. The trepidation because Belgium are currently ranked by FIFA as the second best team in the world.
Canadian footy fans have been disappointed for far too many years by heartbreak at the most inopportune moments, think 2007 Gold Cup vs the United States, 2014 World Cup qualifiers vs Honduras, or as recently as the 2019 Gold Cup vs Haiti. The choker label was not just looking like it fit but that the noose was getting tighter with each failure.
But as we have all been reminded over the course of Canada’s inexorable odyssey of qualifying through three stages of qualifying and 20 games in under 13 months, this is the new Canada Men’s Team; the Brotherhood. Led by their charismatic head coach, John Herdman, the CanMNT have reached heights not seen since 1986.
With a first place finish in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying campaign – the Octagonal, and sporting the region’s best record, most goals scored while conceding the fewest, the team has captured the hearts and minds of Canadian footy fans from coast-to-coast. As noted, their first game at FIFA’s big dance is with European powerhouse Belgium. Given their opponent’s pedigree most Canadian fans, while ecstatic, have been taking a rather pragmatic approach to the team’s prospects of securing a result.
ＭＡＴＣＨ ＤＡＹ— CPL News ⚽️ (@canplnews) November 23, 2022
#BEL vs. #CAN
2022 FIFA World Cup
⏰ 2:00pm ET / 11:00am PT
️ Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar
TSN 1/3/4/5, RDS, CTV
Come on, Canada! ❤️ ❤️ pic.twitter.com/l8UT1NZjk9
However, here’s my hot take: Canada will not only give a good account of themselves on their return to the World Cup, but they will win the game. There are plenty of reasons for optimism. Let us roll through them.
Canada has one of the greatest football managerial minds to fly beneath the radar on the planet in John Herdman. Sure, he’s made mistakes over the past four years at the helm, but he has a knack to learn from them without repeating them. His personnel decisions have occasionally puzzled some fans but at this point in time we must agree, injuries aside, he has arguably assembled the best Canadian Men’s team ever.
Herdman has judicious mix of players young and old, MLS based and those plying their trade in Europe, global stars and others that tend more towards anonymity. an players, and European, precocious talents, and savvy, experienced veterans. The squad is led by 22 year old generational stars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, and anchored by the stability provided by old hands such as captain Atiba Hutchinson, Milan Borjan and Steven Vitoria. In between are a mix of reliable and burgeoning talents like Stephen Eustáquio and Junior Hoilett.
More importantly, all these players of varied experiences and pedigree have bought into the ‘Brotherhood’ mentality fostered by Herdman’s leadership. On a more practical level, the team has bought into the flexible and dynamic tactics introduced by the manager. The team’s ability to shape-shift during a game, whether it be a three man back line or a four man back line, or a two man central midfield or three man configuration, is an advantage the team has wielded to considerable success throughout the qualifiers and tune-up games since. Under Herdman’s guidance, the team can execute a low block when called upon, or fearlessly take the game to the opponent.
This fearlessness, is key to the team’s identity and success. Previous iterations of the CanMNT frequently afforded too much respect to their opponents. But this team has not been intimidated. One only needs to point to the shenanigans against Panama at the BMO Field corner flag or the physical, in your face reception given to Mexico at Commonwealth Stadium to see how far this team has come. This never-say-die attitude will not permit the team to be over-awed or to back down from any obstacle they cross.
To cap off, Canada has an abundance of speed at its disposal, especially along the flanks. Canada has shown that they can be lethal on the counter-attack, with superior foot speed at its core. This Canadian team has more talent and football acumen than its ever seen, but the ability to out run the Belgian defenders in particular will provide an edge.
Much has been made of Belgium’s golden generation over the past decade. This praise has not been undeserved. Truthfully, Belgium has been among the international elite over this period. However, the team’s dynamic core is no longer in its prime, or is at minimum, is on the wrong side of 30.
Dual attacking midfield maestros Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne are 31 now. Manchester City’s De Bruyne remains at the height of his powers, but the same cannot be said of Belgium captain Eden Hazard. The Real Madrid man has been in a noticeable decline of late and in this current, interrupted season has only managed to get six club appearances with less than 230 minutes to his name.
Belgium’s defence relies heavily on the duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Vertonghen is 33 and Alderweireld is 35 and neither were considered fleet of foot in their primes. Canada’s Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David will be sure to put both defenders to the test centrally and down the right side. On the left side, Alphonso Davies may come up against a 19 year old Zeno Debast, a daunting prospect for the recently capped Belgian right back.
Leading the line for Belgium will not be their all-time leading scorer Romelu Lukaku as he has been ruled out due to a hamstring injury. Instead, the Belgium attack will likely feature journeyman Michy Batshuayi or 35 year old Dries Mertens. Batshuayi will not strike the same healthy respect that Lukaku would and Mertens is decidedly no longer in his prime. Provided Canada’s central midfield duo of Hutchinson and Eustáquio do their job in the middle, Belgium’s attack can be kept in check.
As for Belgium’s record and performance in big tournaments, namely the World Cup and European Championships, over the past decade, were they as good as advertised. In four World Cup qualifying and Euro qualifying groups in the period covering 2014-2021 Belgium topped their group each time. In the four tournaments Belgium lost only one group stage match in 12 played. In the early tournaments of the Belgian golden generation, at Brazil 2014 and France 2016 Belgium bowed out at the quarter-final stage. Russia 2018 proved to be Belgium’s pinnacle by reaching the semi-finals and finishing third overall. However, in the most recent pandemic delayed Euro tournament held in 2021 Belgium once again bowed out in the quarter-finals.
The tournament record tells a story of a much fancied team that could not reach the finals at the peak of its golden generation in 2018, and is now showing itself to be in decline. While FIFA rankings have Belgium still ranked number 2 in the world, Elo football rankings, which tend to drop off older historical results sooner than FIFA rankings, has them ranked a bit lower at number 5.
Belgium remains a formidable team, one that I admire, but one who’s current state and form suggest that they are beatable for an up and coming team such as Canada. To conclude my admittedly hot take, Canada 2 Belgium 1.