World Cup·Analysis

Far from meaningless, Canada's game vs. Morocco another chance for men to make history at World Cup

Coach John Herdman says Thursday's game against Morocco is "a real opportunity for our players, for our country, to keep stepping forward," on the men's World Cup stage.

Despite being eliminated, coach Herdman says team still has goals it wants to reach

Canada head coach John Herdman watches his team during practice this week in Qatar. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

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

Now we address the notion of "meaningless."

The Canadian men will be playing their last game at this World Cup on Thursday against Morocco. After losses to Belgium and Croatia, they have been mathematically eliminated from advancing to the round of 16, which begins Saturday in Qatar.

The game still matters. It matters very much to the Moroccans, who go through with a win or a draw. It also matters, or it should, to this Canadian team. It took them two years of qualifiers to get here. They had to play 20 games, from frozen Edmonton to steamy Costa Rica, to reach their first men's World Cup since 1986.

"I think it's a real opportunity for our players, for our country, to keep stepping forward," head coach John Herdman said at his third and final pre-match press conference in Qatar. "We'll stay committed to our identity and go into this match with an opportunity to make some more history."

When Alphonso Davies scored 68 seconds into the Croatia game, this team had already made its share: that was the first men's World Cup goal for Canada. (The 1986 side didn't manage to score in three straight losses.)

At a heart-swelling team meeting on Tuesday, footage of the goal and the celebration that followed was played again and again. "They got to see what we really came here for: to give Canada that moment," Herdman said.

Herdman celebrates Alphonso Davies's historic goal on Sunday with goalkeeper Milan Borjan. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

Moroccan coach complimentary of Canada

Unfortunately, the Croatians responded with four goals of their own. That was it. Canada was the second team to be eliminated, after host Qatar, with a game to play.

There remain firsts to be won.

"The team set clear goals coming in here," Herdman said. "First team to score a goal. First team to show up fearless. First team to entertain. First team to keep a clean sheet. First team to get a result. First team to get a win.

"We believe [those] goals are still achievable."

The Moroccans —"a tough opponent who's very motivated," Herdman said — will counter with their own, more ambitious agenda. Morocco is playing in its fifth men's World Cup; it has made the round of 16 only once, in 1986.

"To me, they are one of the best squads in this championship," Morocco head coach Walid Regragui said of the Canadians. "Of course, they want to make their own history… But I'm not interested in what Canada needs. It's about what we need. Our players want to make history, too."

Regragui paid the Canadians a further compliment that, under the sad circumstances, also felt a little like a barb. "They're a team that should have taken away more points," he said.

Herdman yells Davies looks on during Canada's 4-1 loss to Croatia. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Except for the two World Cup finalists, most teams don't know they're about to play their last match before it begins. Only Qatar and Canada have had the burden of that grim knowledge. 

Now it comes down to whether the Canadians can resist the instinct to be wistful about the end of a journey, and find the passion, the ruthlessness, needed to finish strong.

"I don't think that this group knows anything but going out and seeking three points," Earl Cochrane, Canada Soccer's general secretary, said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with CBC at the team hotel in Lusail. "That's their mindset. That's the way that they're built.

"I think that they will go and seek those opportunities to get three points. I don't think that's anything they need to hear from me or anyone else."

In a bittersweet way, Thursday's game will be the ultimate test for a man like Herdman. His wants and his wishes will be waging war inside of him.

He wants a result. He wants a win.

WATCH | Soccer North — Canada vs. Croatia post-match reaction show:

Canada vs. Croatia post-match reaction show

4 months ago
Duration 36:07
Watch as Andi Petrillo and guests take a look at the Canada vs. Croatia game at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

He also has nine players who have not yet played — nine loyal men who have been fighting alongside him for a very long time. Mark-Anthony Kaye is one. Samuel Piette is another. Ike Ugbo. David Wotherspoon. Liam Fraser.

Thinking about those lineup decisions brought Herdman close to tears. "These are people you've built genuine relationships with," he said. "You know their families. They know you… But our players have all bought in. It's not about them tomorrow, getting a World Cup minute." 

He said one substitute came to his hotel room to have a "really emotional" meeting. The player — unnamed, but someone who has been with the program for six or seven years — told Herdman that if the choice is between a result for the team, and a minute in the sun for him, then Herdman should choose the team.

"That's what this team is about," Herdman said. "That's what I love about them." And then he stopped talking.

There is no such thing as meaningless at a World Cup.

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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