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With World Cup berth, Canada produces its manifesto

The Canadian Men’s National Team has clinched its spot at Qatar 2022. One fan reflects on the journey.

Sean Pollock/Waking the Red

It was December 1993. I was on winter break, flipping through the channels on the ol’ television set, and came across the star-studded draw for the upcoming FIFA World Cup to be played next summer just south of the border. I eagerly waited to find out who Canada would be playing. I was an eight-year-old kid mostly into hockey and baseball, and clearly didn’t know how world football worked. I did have a sense of the sport’s popularity at the youth level in this country, as well as Canada’s global diversity and material resources. So I was surprised and dismayed to find out that we didn’t even qualify, and had only reached the tournament once in our history.

On the surface, naïve, of course. But if I could answer that eight-year-old today, after getting through the Ryan Reynolds-esque existential questions of meeting your future self, I would say, “you’re right, kid. Our diversity and wealth and the sport’s grass-roots popularity mean we should be qualifying every year, or at least consistently be putting up a serious fight. But decades of non-committal leadership at the top — incompetence, provincial in-fighting and straight-up corruption — have meant that cycle after cycle, we keep on missing the mark, and missing it widely.”

Fast-forward 19 years, and a kid from Burnaby has burst onto the Olympic stage. She would go on to lead her side to a bronze in London, and then again in Rio four years later, all while the men’s side continued to languish in mediocrity. As with many things in life, the women show us all how it’s done. In this case, it’s how to build a program and a disciplined talented national side that can compete and win on the world stage. It’s fitting that just as the men’s program started to rise, the XNT summited the highest peak at Tokyo 2020.

Then in January 2018, one of the benefactors and co-labourers of that gilded ascent, a bloke from a small town near Newcastle, took his moment. He exploited the scandalous off-pitch weaknesses of the men’s program and forced that sluggish, rusty machine to give him the keys. What probably felt like a ruthless coup at the time is now — we deeply hope — a coup de grace to our legacy of mismanagement and underperformance. The results on the pitch really do speak for themselves.

The XNT’s triumphs in London, Rio and Tokyo were clear statements that the football world as a whole should start taking us seriously. In 2021, the men’s side started racking up results as well. Given the lifeline of a revamped format, they still had a long road ahead. But they took the opportunity and ran with it at blistering pace. In their first-round fixtures against Suriname, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Aruba, they finally pocketed the collection of blow-out score lines that we should all expect a Canadian team to get. Along with handling Haiti in the two-legged second round clash, and a brilliantly impressive showing at the Gold Cup, the men had written a notice of their own, a press release announcing that a new future was on the horizon.

Sean Pollock/Waking the Red

Then came the third round, and yes it’s time for me to wax poetic. If Canada’s performances in the first and second rounds of qualifying were a statement, their achievement in this final round has been nothing short of a manifesto, a declaration of independence from the obscurity of the past. They have issued a proclamation to world football that they are here to compete at the highest level and aren’t going anywhere.

When the PA announcer at BMO Field stated yesterday that “Canada has reached the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying,” I couldn’t help but mentally edit that to “Canada has dominated the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.” It’s been full of unprecedented results, such as away draws against both Mexico and the United States, which made Canada the first in the CONCACAF qualifying to go to both countries and come away undefeated. We’ve exorcised regional demons with road wins in Honduras and El Salvador. We’ve gained convincing home wins such as Phonzy’s night at BMO against Panama and the all-important toppling of the Mexican and American giants in Edmonton and Hamilton respectively. Those chilly wins against Mexico and the U.S. stand out as fully deserved victories that simply did not feel like upsets. And finally, yesterday afternoon, an overwhelming offensive display against Jamaica to make it official.

No, this final round hasn’t been all smooth sailing. That first home draw against Honduras required a mindset adjustment and showed just how much work lay ahead. The early away draw against a floundering Jamaica and the one frustrating loss to Costa Rica last week have provided the fuel of adversity. But Herdman and co. have shown us and the football world something stunningly new for the Canadian men’s program: a team, a band of brothers, with unwavering commitment to each other both on and off the pitch, and a Canadian Soccer Association leadership that facilitates this behind the scenes and then gets out of the way.

Two parting thoughts about this team, that should make for detailed articles on their own:

  1. My favourite stat through matchday 13 has to be the mere six goals against. Defending was the big question going into this final round, sensible given our history of porous and sluggish backlines. But with less than half a goal against per game, the stalwart corps of Johnston, Vitoria, Miller, Kennedy, Henry and above all Borjan have decidedly put this question to bed.
  2. Perhaps most important in the long-run: Black players have led the charge on all parts of the pitch, throughout this qualifying campaign. This deserves more positive attention than it’s gotten; the length and diversity of this list is staggering: Larin, David, Davies, Buchanan, Hoilett, Laryea, Adekugbe, Kaye, Miller, Henry, Cornelius, Brault-Guillard and the king himself, Atiba Hutchinson. I’m sure the list is longer than that, and is going to grow very soon when Ugbo, Koné, St. Clair and others get more playing time. Canada’s men’s national team looks like the Canada we know, comes together like the Canada we aspire to be. It is ready to represent the Maple Leaf with pride and courage on the sporting world’s biggest stage.

That eight-year-old kid watching the 1994 draw with a sense Canada’s diversity, resources and grass-roots football experience may have been right in the end. I’ll be watching the next draw this Friday afternoon, eagerly waiting to find out who Canada will play in the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.