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Next-level opposition awaits Canada’s World Cup team in Qatar

No. 3 Belgium, No. 12 Croatia and No. 22 Morocco await the 41st-ranked Canadians in Group F
Qatar’s Alrawi, left, tries tp stop Canada’s Liam Millar during the international friendly soccer match between Qatar and Canada, at the Viola Park stadium in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Florian Schroetter)

Canada turned heads in topping the final round of World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region. Now comes a string of next-level tests at the World Cup, starting with No. 2 Belgium.

The Canadian men are jumping into the deep end of world football.

Canada coach John Herdman knows the challenge that awaits. And how his players will have to rise to meet it.

“Coming up against the No. 2 team in the world in Belgium (on Nov. 23), you look at that and you know there’s another level to be found by our players,” Herdman said. “Yeah it is a bit nerve-racking to that degree. I’m sure every coach is going through these emotions.”

“It’s new, but it’s certainly a gift not a curse I’d say to be thinking about this,” he added.

No. 12 Croatia and No. 22 Morocco await the 41st-ranked Canadians in Group F in Qatar.

And while Herdman got good news pre-tournament on the fitness of veterans Atiba Hutchinson and Jonathan Osorio, there was major disappointment in seeing goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau (broken leg) and defenders Scott Kennedy (shoulder) and Doneil Henry (calf) ruled out by injury,

There was better news on Alphonso Davies, whose hamstring strain is not seen as major. But Herdman will undoubtedly heave a sigh of relief when Bayern Munich star takes the field for Canada.

On the plus side, influential midfielder Stephen Eustaquio has been in a rich vein of form with Portugal’s FC Porto. Like Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan, he has been seeing plenty of elite opposition in the Champions League. Jonathan David has been scoring for France’s Lille.

And before the latest injury, Davies was Davies.

“There’s a lot of positives for Canada,” Herdman said before arriving in Qatar.

While Herdman is a meticulous planner, there is little he could do about the MLS schedule and the fact that the season ended Oct. 9 for Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. CF Montreal, which accounts for six of the 11 MLS players on Herdman’s roster, played on until it ran into New York City FC in the Oct. 23 Eastern Conference semifinal.

While some players may be lacking “match readiness for World Cup matches that are at that next level,” Herdman will have his players prepared tactically. Herdman and his staff leave no stone unturned when it comes to scouting the opposition, and the Canadians always have Plans B and C in their back pocket.

And if Plan D is needed, goalkeeper Milan Borjan has a history of requiring treatment around the 20- or 30-minute mark, allowing players to head to the sidelines for hydration — and a fresh dose of Herdman wisdom.

With the tournament allowing an expanded roster of 26 for the first time, Herdman and his staff did their due diligence into how a bigger squad would affect everything from training to the load on staff. They brought in 26 players for their September camp in Europe ahead of games against Uruguay and Qatar.

“We tested the environment in September. I think we’ve got a great group of players with the right attitude. So that bodes well,” Herdman said. “But it is a challenge. There’s certainly the rotation of players. It’s a long tournament.”

No stranger to World Cups from his time in charge of the Canadian women and while coaching the New Zealand under-20 and senior women, Herdman is well aware of the mental strain on players who are not getting on the field at tournaments.

“That’s the biggest challenge around coaching,” said Herdman. “It’s about being able to establish a level of fairness in the environment, trust in decisions. And this is the journey you’re going on. This is the adventure that as a coaching team, as a whole staff and then a player group, we have to embrace that there’s going to be things that impact and test the brotherhood.

“There’s no doubt the brotherhood will be tested because when you put pressure and the expectations, scrutiny and consequences of a World Cup around this group — you know people have never been exposed to this. And often you don’t know how people ware going to react in these situations.

“With it being our first World Cup, there’ll be a hell of a lot of learnings, I know that for sure. This is the first for the majority of staff on the men’s side and the first for these players. So they’re going to learn a lot about each other.”

While the Canadian men’s 20-match journey to the World Cup also came with tests, it was against CONCACAF opposition.

A congested qualifying schedule due to the pandemic plus the introduction of Nations League play in CONCACAF and Europe has left little room for teams to play rivals outside their confederation.

CONCACAF has just three teams (No. 13 Mexico, No. 16 U.S. and No. 31 Costa Rica) in the top 40 of the FIFA world rankings. In comparison, Europe has 21 (topped by Belgium) and South America’ six (including No. 1 Brazil).

Herdman is realistic. He hopes others are too.

While Canada is in Qatar to compete and start a new World Cup legacy, it is also building a foundation for 2026 when it co-hosts the tournament with the U.S. and Mexico.

“I think the true football fans in Canada understand this. They understand the realities of where Canada sits at this moment in time,” said Herdman. “We have a good team. We’ve have good players. But a lot of this is uncharted ground for us. And there’ll be a lot of learning experiences and learning on the job for players, staff.

“As a coach I’m going to learn from Day 1 to the day the tournament ends, everything is going to be new. And that’s what what’re embracing. But it’s the same for a lot of coaches and some of the players that are attending … I think the critical part is knowing that for 2026 there’s a lot of organizational knowledge that will be retained from preparing this team, the game experiences, the tournament experience.”

As co-host in 2026, Canada won’t have to qualify (although FIFA has yet to rubber-stamp that). But it will be a desirable opponent and destination for teams ahead of the tournament. Plus it will have an empty schedule.

“You should be able to play those matches that you haven’t been able to get access to which are critical,” said Herdman. “(It’s) critical to understand what it feels like to play against that $500-million-plus valuation team the billion-dollar team and teams like Brazil and England. Those are real tests, next-step tests that you have to experience.

“For this World Cup, I think the football fan that really understands football and world football, they get it. They understand for Canada to play the No. 2 team in the world, that’s a big test. And it’s a real experience. Because we’ve never played a top-five-ranked team in the world since I don’t know, maybe a decade ago,” he added.

“So we’ve got a lot to learn. But at the same time we have the underdog opportunity … that’s what we’re going to embrace.”

—Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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