World Cup·Analysis

Penalty-kick decision lingers in wake of Canada's World Cup-opening loss to Belgium

Canada's loss to Belgium in their men's World Cup opener hinged on a missed penalty attempt by the team's star, Alphonso Davies.

Belgian goalkeeper did his homework in stopping Alphonso Davies

Alphonso Davies is stopped by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in Canada's 1-0 loss in their men's World Cup opener. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

In the moments before the Canadian men played their first World Cup game in 36 years, Atiba Hutchinson, their 39-year-old captain, stretched out on the grass and looked up at the stadium lights.

It would have been understandable if Hutchinson had seemed nervous, having waited so long for this night. Or because his reward for his decades of patience was a game against Belgium, the second-ranked team in the world. 

He looked far from nervous. He looked serene. He looked happy. He half-closed his eyes and smiled, appearing very much like a man who had walked a million miles to the ocean, and had just caught his first glimpse of the water

That's what experience gives you.

Even in a case like Hutchinson at the World Cup — he has never done exactly this, at these heights — he has done something close to it dozens of times, and a reasonable facsimile hundreds of times, and a reduced version thousands of times.

Canada's Alphonso Davies, left, reacts after having his penalty attempt stopped early in Wednesday's game. (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

His much younger teammates, particularly the ones tasked with scoring goals, have not. They were sometimes terrific, optimistic, confident on a hugely fun night. They were also less than clinical, and the Canadians lost 1-0.

In the eighth minute, Tajon Buchanan took a shot that Belgium's Yannick Carrasco blocked with his hand. Canada was awarded a penalty. Alphonso Davies lined up to take it.

Davies, as well as having a terrific chance to give his side an early lead, was also set to score the first goal for Canada in men's World Cup history. During Canada's only other appearance at the tournament in 1986, the men were shut out in three consecutive defeats.

The referee took seemingly forever to organize things. Davies waited, staring at the grass. Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, a giant in every sense, stared instead at him.

Last week in Dubai, the Canadians played one last tune-up, a friendly against the Japanese. They were awarded a penalty in the dying seconds of added time for a chance to win the game.

Jonathan David, who is on a torrid goal-scoring pace with Ligue 1 club Lille, seemed poised to take it. Then Lucas Cavallini, El Tanque to his teammates, took the ball from him.

Canada's Atiba Hutchinson takes a shot that misses the net in Canada's loss on Wednesday. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Head coach John Herdman looked at his bench. "If he tries a Panenka, I'm gonna kill him," he said.

Cavallini did try a Panenka — a soft, looping shot down the middle of the net, designed to put the ball where the diving goalkeeper used to be but no longer is. He barely scuffed the ball over the line.

After, Herdman shook his head, laughing ruefully. "Just put it in the corner," he said later. "Hit it as hard as you can, as low as you can into the corner. I don't know why we need to do that stuff."

Herdman was then asked if he had a designated penalty taker.

"I thought it was Jonny," he said, referring to David. Next, he was asked an especially prescient question. If Canada was awarded a penalty against Belgium, would Herdman decide who took it?

"No," he said. "I'll let the lads sort that one out. At the end of the day, they play the game. I try to micromanage as much as I can, but you gotta know their feel."

Canada's head coach John Herdman reacts during his team's loss to Belgium. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

Davies had taken two penalties in his career, both for Canada. He had made them both. David is 9-for-12 lifetime from the spot.

That's not perfect, but that is indisputably more. And on a night like this — "You know the whole world is watching," Hutchinson said — more is good.

The veteran Courtois, arguably the best goalkeeper on Earth, had anticipated both Davies and David might take a penalty and had watched video of their past efforts in preparation. Davies taking the shot had made his job easier.

For both of his penalties — in low-stakes situations against the Cayman Islands and Curaçao — Davies had opened his body and shot to his left, the goalkeeper's right.

"So that's why I decided to go there," Courtois said after.

Belgium's Michy Batshuayi shot eludes Canadian 'keeper Milan Borjan. (Matthew Childs/Pool/Getty Images)

Davies's shot was a little light, and not close enough to the post — not exactly the hard hit to the corner that Herdman had prescribed in Dubai. It was also to his left, Courtois's right. Courtois was there to meet it.

The Canadians responded well to the setback — Davies among them. They were often the better team. But like the missed penalty, opportunity after opportunity went wanting. A sliding Buchanan missed from six yards out. Stephen Eustáquio nutmegged the great Kevin De Bruyne and sent a gorgeous ball into the box. David couldn't get his head behind it.

In the end, Canada had 22 shots; only three found the target. The Belgians, who commended their opponents and admonished themselves after the game, had only nine attempts.

Critically, however, three of those also found the target, and one found the back of the net. Toward the end of the first half, Michy Batshuayi collected an inch-perfect long ball from Toby Alderweireld and fired it home.

That's what experience gives you, too.

Canadian coach John Herdman gathers his team on the pitch following the loss. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Entering the match, Belgium had played 48 total World Cup games. The Canadians had their three.

A 45-game gap is impossible to close, in a night, or in the next century.

But now Canada has four, and Hutchinson knew better than anyone just how much it meant.

"Learn from it," he said. "Take the positives from it. And prepare for the next one."

World Cup game No. 5 in the history of the Canadian men will be against Croatia on Sunday. Hopefully they grow old between now and then, and they learn to see the net for an ocean. 

Watch Soccer North live immediately following each of Canada's games on CBC and the 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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