Veteran 'keeper Milan Borjan finally getting chance to honour his adopted Canada with magical World Cup run
34-year-old Serbian immigrant has been the rock coach John Herdman needed
In March 2018, shortly after John Herdman had moved from coaching Canada's women to Canada's men, he held his first camp in Murcia, Spain. He knew that he had some skeptical minds to change, and some wounded hearts to mend. He soon met with goalkeeper Milan Borjan — by Herdman's reckoning, one of the few big names who had bothered showing up — to talk about where the team had been, and where together they might go.
"I remember sitting with this man, the passion coming out of him," Herdman said this week, before Canada's potentially clinching World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Thursday night. If there is an unspoken certainty about Herdman's otherwise top-secret lineup, it's that Borjan will be in goal — in no small part because of that long-ago conversation in Murcia.
"I knew I wanted to go to war in every moment with this man," Herdman said.
Herdman remembered, too, how honest Borjan had been during that opening summit. He felt let down by a program that, at the time, ranked 94th in the world, one place ahead of the Faroe Islands, population 48,000. Borjan wanted to give back to the country that had provided refuge for his family when he was 13, and all he had done was lose. Where was the honour in that?
"Canada gave my family everything," Borjan said in January. (His family had fled the Croatian War of Independence and ultimately settled in Hamilton, where they still live.) "When somebody gives you that much love, you have to return it."
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Herdman was taken by the intensity of Borjan's desire as much as his play. In their first game together, a friendly against New Zealand, he didn't face a single shot on target. Borjan's presence still made an impression on Herdman that was both immediate and lasting. The new coach sensed that he was in the company of someone special.
"When the big moments come, people like that are going to come through," Herdman said.
Borjan has come through again and again during Canada's remarkable World Cup qualifying run. He made a desperate last-second stop to preserve a 2-1 win over Mexico. Away against Honduras, his block of a goal-bound header helped turn a possible tie or loss into a 2-0 win. Three days later in Hamilton, of all the storybook places, Borjan made a dramatic diving save en route to yet another 2-0 win, this time over the Americans. He shouted at the standing crowd after, beating his chest hard enough to imperil a heart even the size of his.
Iconic track pants
Looking back, Herdman could have been forgiven if he'd chosen one of Canada's other goalkeepers to lead this campaign. Maxime Crépeau, currently starring for LAFC, has made a particularly strong case for himself. When Borjan missed last October's qualifying window with COVID, Crépeau played admirably in all three matches.
He's also, on balance, probably more technically sound than Borjan, and certainly more modern in his game. (Crépeau is 27 years old; Borjan is 34.) Borjan is a classic shot-stopper who plays close to his line, and he isn't great with his feet. Herdman, supremely analytical in so many ways, might have decided that Borjan's passion mattered only so much, and it was time for a more clinical approach. Aura is difficult to quantify.
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But during the following window, in November in frozen Edmonton, Herdman went right back to Borjan, who broke out his now-iconic track pants for the first time. Canada has won every one of its five games since, and Borjan has earned the shutout in four of them. Never mind fashion, Borjan has announced; this is a game of results, and his results are beyond dispute.
"It's never been in doubt for me," Herdman said. "The big nights, this guy understands how to manage a game. He understands how to manipulate a dressing room at the right time. He's just got that experience that has really helped this young group of men."
Almost as an afterthought, Herdman added: "And he's a good goalkeeper."
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On Wednesday evening, when heavy rains had brought a crispness to the air in San José, Canada arrived at the Estadio Nacional to take a walk on the wet grass. After a few minutes of happy communion with Herdman and fellow veteran Atiba Hutchinson, having come so far from Murcia, Borjan summoned the rest of his teammates to the middle of the pitch, where they surrounded him in concentric circles.
He reminded them of who they are, and where they now find themselves: one win—one goal, and almost certainly one more spectacular save—away from qualifying for the World Cup.
This is how it feels to be in the company of someone special.
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