Canada enters men's World Cup on a high after last-second win over Japan in final tune-up match

A Lucas Cavallini penalty kick in extra time that barely crossed the line provided Canada with an upset 2-1 win against Japan in its final men's World Cup tune-up on Thursday.

Lucas Cavallini scores on penalty in extra time for 2-1 victory

Lucas Cavallini celebrates after scoring on a penalty kick to give Canada a 2-1 win over Japan in a World Cup tune-up in Dubai on Thursday. (Christopher Pike/Associated Press)

In soccer, experience tells. Japan is about to play in its seventh consecutive Men's World Cup. Canada is about to play its first in 36 years. Good teams, good players, have a nose for insecurity, for uncertainty, for weakness.

Japan needed nine minutes to find it in Canada.

The Canadians took the rest of the game to show that they have strengths, too.

Thursday's 2-1 win for Canada鈥攐ne last tune-up for both teams before they embark on their World Cup campaigns in Qatar鈥攄idn't exactly take place in a cauldron. There were maybe a thousand fans in Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. The evening air was warm and still rather than electric.

Even absent nerves or pressure, the countless tiny gulfs that exist between Canada's best players and the best in the world began to open.

WATCH | Lucas Cavallini scores winner on penalty kick:

Cavallini's late penalty kick earns Canada a win in final friendly before World Cup

3 months ago
Duration 2:45
Richie Laryea drew a penalty in stoppage time, and Lucas Cavallini's "Panenka" penalty kick gave Canada a 2-1 win in their international friendly over Japan in Dubai. Canada's next match will be November 23 against Belgium in the FIFA World Cup.

Milan Borjan, the goalkeeper who guided Canada through its epic qualifying run with his stellar saves and charismatic leadership, has a fundamental flaw. He is not good with his feet.

Before the Canadians really had chance to find their rhythm, he shanked a clearance, failing to kick it to half. Head coach John Herdman, pacing the touchline, stopped his perpetual motion to tell Borjan to settle down.

The Japanese had already mounted their precision counter. They sliced down the middle of the field, and Yuki Soma neatly handled a long through ball and slotted it home.

Japan's Yuki Soma celebrates after scoring past Canadian goaltender Milan Borjan in a friendly match on Thursday. (Christopher Pike/Associated Press)

That's how the game works at this level. It is designed to expose everything about you.

On this night, it also happened to reveal the size of Canadian hearts. After a quick regroup, they responded to their early faltering in the 21st minute. Steven Vitoria directed home a corner kick that went uncharacteristically uncleared by the Japanese.

Everyone makes mistakes.

And in the dying moments of the second half, deep into added time, the Japanese made one more. A streaking Richie Laryea was brought down in the box, and the Canadians were awarded a last-minute penalty that would decide the game.

Lucas Cavallini fought to take it. He wasn't the obvious choice. Jonathan David, who has been scoring virtually at will in Ligue 1, was standing beside him. Cavallini鈥擡l Tanque to his teammates鈥攕till ended up with the ball. Herdman looked at the rest of his team, now having joined him on the touchline.

"If he tries a Panenka, I'll kill him," he said.

WATCH |聽Soccer North: Can Canada get out of the group stage?

Soccer North: Can Canada get out of the group stage in Qatar?

3 months ago
Duration 25:17
Host Andi Petrillo gets you caught up on the biggest news from the Canadian men's and women's national teams.

Cavallini did, in fact, take a Panenka, hitting a light, spinning chip down the middle. The Japanese goalkeeper fell just enough for Cavallini's ill-advised mischief, diving to his left before reaching back vainly to his right, the ball spinning off his glove and dropping into the net.

"I don't know," Herdman said after, putting his hands to his face, able to laugh about his premonition only because the ball went in. "Just put it in the corner. I don't know why we need to do that stuff. All I can say is, it's the new Canada swagger, eh?"

Canadian head coach John Herdman shouts during a friendly soccer match between Canada and Japan in Dubai, Thursday. (Christopher Pike/Associated Press)

It was an improbable, happy end to a chaotic, revealing match鈥攁nd the result shouldn't mask this team's faults. There is a difference between good and great, between upstart and veteran. It is real, and it exists.

But sometimes in life, and for this team especially, some perfect combination of grit and luck momentarily makes up the gap.

It's unlikely Canada's magical run will continue beyond next week. Herdman knows that. He understands better than most that you can ignore reality for only so long. A win is a win, and he will take Thursday's triumph, along with every other moment in the sun his team is about to enjoy.

"Then you sober up," he said. "And it's clear. The second-best team in the world awaits us."

He was talking about Belgium, the first of Canada's daunting opponents. Then comes Croatia鈥攖wo teams that are supposed to beat Canada. They are better in every respect. They will almost certainly finish what Japan could not, and send Canada home.

If they do, that's okay. That's the natural and proper order of things. The only tragedy will be if the Canadians fail to take the one opportunity that they know they will be given in Qatar: to stand alongside the greatest players on Earth for the first time in 36 years, and to resolve that the next time they meet, they will rely less on good fortune, and more on themselves.

Episode 4 of Soccer North lands Friday on聽CBC Gem,聽CBCSports.ca聽and the聽CBC Sports YouTube channel.


Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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