World Cup·Analysis

Eustáquio and Canadian teammates refuse to be intimidated ahead of World Cup clash with Croatia

That the Canadians have a "do-or-die" game to play Sunday is testament enough to their collective refinement. That they're talking credibly about winning it feels almost surreal.

'It's going to be tough for us, but it's going to be tough for them,' midfielder says

Canada's Stephen Eustáquio stands his ground against Belgium's Axel Witsel in their World Cup opener on Wednesday. (AFP via Getty Images)

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

Stephen Eustáquio doesn't get the attention of his flashier colleagues on the Canadian men's national team: He's a defensive midfielder — less the spark, and more the gunpowder. But there are lessons for every one of his teammates, for all of us, in his slow and steady ascent.

"You can see why people get to the top of their craft," John Herdman, his admiring coach, said in Doha on Saturday, a little more than 24 hours before his team will play a "do-or-die" game here against fearsome Croatia.

That the Canadians have such a game to play is testament enough to their collective refinement. That they're talking credibly about winning it — "It's going to be tough for us, but it's going to be tough for them," Eustáquio said — feels almost surreal.

When Herdman took over as the men's coach in January 2018, Canada was ranked 94th in the world, between Gabon and the Faroe Islands (population 49,053).

The following year, Eustáquio joined the effort. He was born in Leamington, Ont., to Portuguese parents, and the family returned to Portugal when he was seven. He could have played for Portugal. He chose Canada instead.

WATCH | Canada faces must-win game vs. Croatia:

Preview: Canada taking on Croatia in World Cup must-win

2 months ago
Duration 2:49
Host Andi Petrillo is joined for by former Canada Soccer player Jimmy Brennan ahead of the Canadian men's national team's upcoming match against Croatia in the World Cup.

"Even if we didn't qualify, I made the best decision of my life to come play for Canada," he said after he and his teammates had finished their improbable run to their first World Cup since 1986. 

When he'd made that fateful choice, Eustáquio had endured a brutal stretch in his career, which began in Portugal's third division. "He was written off," Herdman said.

In January 2019, he'd moved to Mexico to play for Cruz Azul; in his debut, he blew up his knee. There is footage of him being stretchered away, his leg in pieces, his hands pressed to his filling eyes.

He now plays his club soccer for Porto, where he has been a sensation, scoring in back-to-back Champions League matches before the World Cup break.

He has been equally brilliant for his country. In Canada's narrow opening loss to Belgium, Eustáquio nutmegged Kevin De Bruyne, one of the greatest midfielders on Earth, before delivering a beautiful ball into the box. Jonathan David just missed getting his head properly behind it.

Eustáquio battles Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne in Canada's 1-0 loss earlier in the men's World Cup tournament. The Canadian pulled off a brilliant move against the Belgium great that nearly resulted in a goal. (Belga photo)

An absolutist

The play happened right in front of Herdman. He turned and locked eyes with his son, Jay, sitting in the crowd behind him. "The two of us were looking at each other in awe," Herdman said.

How do you get up from a stretcher in Mexico to nutmeg Kevin De Bruyne at a World Cup in Qatar?

Eustáquio seemed embarrassed by the question. "I had a lot of bad moments," he said. "Had some good moments. The De Bruyne situation was just a moment. The moment I did it, I forgot about it. That's not going to make us win. What's going to make us win is scoring goals."

But even in his deflection, there was an answer: Eustáquio is an absolutist. He believes in right and wrong. For him, greatness isn't an accident: It's the accumulation of experience, positive and negative, and the lessons we might take from each. Improvement is an exercise in constant correction.

"I've not met anyone with his level of attention to detail," Herdman said, which is something, given his own obsessive qualities. (Herdman was enraged after he was 40 minutes late for his first World Cup press conference. He was two minutes early for his second.)

"The tactical conversations we have, the tiny microdetails on his physical preparation, it's next level."

Eustáquio is so hard on himself, so limitless in his aspirations, he can leave his coach feeling like an imposter, unable to meet the same measures. "If you have a day off, you know it," Herdman said. "If you're below his standard, you know it. He pushes us as hard as we push him."

Eustáquio has played a key role for his Porto club team in Champions League play. (AFP via Getty Images)

Croatians feel disrespected

The perpetually driven Eustáquio has never considered approaching his soccer, or his life, any other way. "Any half-second that you're switched off, any detail you don't get correct, that's a goal against," he said.

The Croatians, men's World Cup finalists in 2018, will demand his perfection. Their midfield, anchored by Luka Modric, is arguably the best in the international game.

They are also a little angry, after Herdman first told his team, and then the world, that after the Belgium loss, the Canadians must now "Eff Croatia."

"This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect," Croatian head coach Zlatko Dalic said at his own press conference on Saturday. "We are second in the world."

Ivan Perisic, his versatile winger, was sitting beside him. "I cannot wait for the match to begin," he said. He then turned and stared at a clutch of Canadian reporters in the audience, as though he wanted them to deliver the message.

Some of them gulped. Were Stephen Eustáquio in their place, he probably would have nodded. He can't wait for the game, either. He's prepared all his life for it. 

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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