World Cup has been a humbling — but valuable — lesson for Canada's men's team
Losing shows you what it took someone else to win
Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.
John Herdman, the head coach of the Canadian men's soccer team, has a different word for lessons. He calls them learnings.
There has been no shortage of them for his team, and for him, here in Qatar. Despite a miraculous run to qualify for their first men's World Cup since 1986, the Canadians discovered that there still exists an enormous gap between them and the best teams on Earth.
Entering Thursday's game against Morocco, they were already eliminated from contention for the round of 16. A narrow loss to Belgium and a brutal loss to Croatia had seen to that.
The game still mattered. The men had secured their first World Cup goal when Alphonso Davies scored 68 seconds into the Croatian game. Now they were after their first point, or, better yet, their first win.
They lost, 2-1. The Moroccans are going through from Group F. So, too, are the Croatians, after they eliminated the Belgians with a scoreless draw.
The Canadians will join them in going home.
WATCH | Soccer North breaks down Canada vs. Morocco:
Al Thumama Stadium felt like Canada's first true away ground in Qatar. Canadian supporters outnumbered the Belgians and had put up a quality counter to the Croatians. They were no match for the Moroccans, who travelled here in huge numbers and were as loud as engines.
Night to forget
They were also given more reason to cheer. In the fourth minute, Steven Vitoria pushed a poor ball back to goalkeeper Milan Borjan, who had to charge outside his box to meet it. He still had time to launch a clearance. Instead, he scuffed it straight to the dangerous feet of Hakim Ziyech, who lifted an easy lob into the empty net.
"It's tough, you know," Borjan said. "That just killed me."
Not quite 20 minutes later, the deep-lying Moroccans somehow scored another. Youssef En-Nesyri outraced Vitoria and Kamal Miller for a long ball and banged home a shot at Borjan's near post. The Canadian goalkeeper had worked so hard to be here. He was rewarded with a night to forget.
"Today wasn't my day," he said, "and I'm sorry about that to all the Canadian fans and to my teammates. But this is the bad part of the football. This is the part of the goalkeeper."
The Moroccans weren't done scoring — only this time, they angled one into their own net, off Sam Adekugbe's low cross late in the first half.
The own goal wasn't pretty, but it made things interesting, and in the second half, a trio of Canadian substitutes — including Jonathan David, who had been inexplicably benched — added some much-needed pride to the proceedings. They were much better.
In the 72nd minute, Atiba Hutchinson headed a corner off the crossbar that caromed straight down and caught a whisper of the goal line. A goal would have made for a wonderful finish to the 39-year-old captain's international career.
"I thought it was in, man," Hutchinson said. "It just wasn't meant to be, not only on that goal, but for us throughout the tournament … This time has gone by so fast. It's gone by so fast."
"Two inches from getting our first result," Herdman said. "That's all it was."
Unfortunately, desire alone isn't enough to compete at the heights of international soccer. The Canadian men are not at the same level as their opponents. Their strikers don't finish, their midfield isn't deep enough, their tactical response is slow and disorganized, their set pieces are poor, and their admirable heart doesn't mask their inexperience.
The own goal prevented Canada from matching the worst group-stage performance here. That dubious distinction belongs to host Qatar. Like the Canadians, the Qataris earned zero points and allowed seven goals over the course of their three losses. Unlike the Canadians, the Qataris scored only once. Canada scored two, with Morocco's help.
Three losses and a goal differential of minus-5 also matches Canada's performance at its only other men's World Cup in 1986.
"We came here to connect the country, unite the country," Herdman said before the game, during what he knew was his final pre-match press conference. One of the great times of his life was coming to an end, and there was nothing he could do to prevent the inevitable. The first dream had come true, and the next dream wouldn't.
"I think people are hurt because we're going home early. People are really hurt. The players are hurt, the staff are hurt. We've worked bloody hard," he said. "It's a tough moment."
'We are a football country'
But for just an instant, Herdman transported himself halfway around the world, back to Canada and into the school assemblies that have been called for thousands, maybe millions of boys and girls to watch three special, crushing, beautiful, agonizing games.
"It's those kids, in those schools," Herdman said, fighting through the lump in his throat. "It's those kids, in those schools that will keep believing that Canada is a football country. Because they've seen that Belgium game. They've seen Davies score against Croatia. And they know we are a football country. We're there. You can't deny that."
Nor can it be denied that Canada has a long way to go to be a top soccer country. Losing three times at a World Cup isn't much fun. But losing makes you better, because losing shows you what it took someone else to win. That's the real value of being on this field, with these teams.
Here endeth the lessons; here starteth the learnings.