Canadian men's team offering genuine hope to long-suffering soccer fans
‘Teams should be scared of Canada now,’ says Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan
It was a moment 24 years in the making for the Canadian men's team.
Forced to slog its way through two preliminary rounds, Canada advanced to the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a 3-0 win over Haiti on Tuesday night in Bridgeview, Ill.
Canada was never seriously tested on the pitch, winning all six games against lower-ranked opponents by a combined score of 31-1. But it was an arduous journey for the Canadians, who were forced to contest their home games in the United States due to COVID restrictions, and ended up playing in four different cities across two countries from March 25 to June 15.
Now they get to face the top nations in the region in the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, something they haven't done since the buildup to the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France.
Coach John Herdman admitted it was a "hell of a journey" to get to this point, but he's already thinking ahead to the next round.
"It's a proud moment for us all. We'll enjoy the moment, but at the same time we have to stay humble now because tomorrow the focus shifts to the big mountain, and that big mountain is one of the most exciting mountains I think this country has to try to climb together," Herdman said after the Haiti game.
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WATCH | Larin strike helps lift Canada over Haiti:
Indeed, it is a "big mountain." The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, colloquially known as "The Octagon," is a daunting eight-country, round-robin group stage. Each nation faces the other home and away, which means Canada will play 14 matches from September 2021 to March, 2022. Only the top three teams qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, while the fourth-place team will compete in an intercontinental playoff for the right to also travel to Qatar.
Canada is 70th in the current FIFA world rankings, and of the other seven teams it's about to face, six are ranked higher: Mexico (No. 11), the U.S. (No. 20), Jamaica (No. 45), Costa Rica (No. 50), Honduras (No. 67) and El Salvador (No. 69). Only Panama (No. 78) is ranked lower than Canada.
But that doesn't seem to bother Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who's been with the national team for over a decade and has lived through some pretty lean years.
"We're not scared of anybody. Teams should be scared of Canada now," Borjan stated.
They should be scared, and if that surprises you, then you haven't been paying close enough attention. This is not the same Canadian men's team that stumbled and bumbled its way through the CONCACAF region for so long, infamously suffering an 8-1 loss to Honduras that ended its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign on a humiliating note.
Herdman, a 45-year-old native of England, has breathed new life into the men's team since taking over the reins in 2018. He's played a pivotal role in changing the losing culture within the program with his meticulous attention to detail, his passion for his adopted homeland, and by challenging his players to rise to the responsibility that comes with representing their country.
He's also been blessed with a golden generation of Canadian players, led by Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, two of the best youngsters in the world at the moment who weren't even born the last time Canada made it this far in World Cup qualifying.
Also, several members of the men's team are playing for top cubs across the continent, and were key figures in their teams' title successes this year, including Davies (Bayern Munich), David (Lille), Borjan (Red Star Belgrade), and Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas).
Closer to home, Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC), Samuel Piette (CF Montreal), Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Mark-Anthony Kaye (LAFC) are among the best players in Major League Soccer at their respective positions.
WATCH | Strange own goal gives Canada early lead over Haiti:
Canada has sense of self-belief
There's no question that Herdman's squad has more talent, quality and depth than any other previous Canadian men's team. But what really separates this Canadian side from previous incarnations is the sense of self-belief. There is a swagger and a confidence, and we've consistently seen it in their performances on the pitch during Herdman's tenure. Before his arrival, Canada played with a painfully agonizing timidity and showed opponents far too much respect.
Today, the Canadians no longer play simply not to lose and enter any game against a CONCACAF rival believing they can get a result. This new attitude was on full display in October 2019 when they beat the United States 2-0 in a CONCACAF Nations League match in Toronto, marking the Reds' first win over their neighbours in 17 matches, a streak of futility that dated back to 1985.
Can Canada continue this marvellous run its on and navigate through the CONCACAF finale and qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986? It remains to be seen. But for the first time in a very long time, the Canadian men's team is offering genuine hope to long-suffering soccer fans in this country.