Canada’s men began their World Cup qualifying campaign a year ago this week – in an empty stadium in Florida, during one of COVID’s grim peaks, with a win over Bermuda. So much literal and psychological distance has been covered by this team since then, it’s hard to remember every step along the way. But that’s how this incredible journey began: in silence, in darkness.
Now there is no shortage of sound and light. Canada are set to play their 18th qualifying game and remain somewhat unbeaten and atop the CONCACAF qualifying standings, having picked up wins over favorites Mexico, USA and Panama. A victory against Costa Rica on Thursday night, and Canada will go to Qatar, its first men’s World Cup since 1986.
One more win and another journey begins.
“I don’t think anyone wants this to end,” head coach John Herdman said on Wednesday ahead of the game at the Estadio Nacional, where vendors have been set up next to traffic jams selling strings of red shirts. from Costa Rica, more than 48 hours. before the opening whistle. “We really enjoyed the experience.”
Well, maybe not the whole experience. Those hazy beginnings took place on the less glamorous fringes of football. After four victories in the opening phase, Canada’s men had to face Haiti twice, home and away, just to gain entry into the final phase, called Octogonale, let alone try to win it. .
WATCH | Canada vs Costa Rica preview:
“If I had asked you if I liked it as I walked into the stadium in Haiti? No,” Herdman said with a laugh. “But when you look back, there were some incredible moments that shaped the team.”
Alphonso Davies’ astonishing solo effort against Panama in front of a frenzied Toronto crowd last October first captured the national imagination. Victories over Costa Rica and Mexico on frozen ground in Edmonton in November saw this team melt in a much hotter spotlight. Earning maximum points in the previous qualifying window, including a 2-0 American dominance on a January day under blue skies in Hamilton, made Canada an almost certain bet to go to Qatar.
Will the men secure their spot with a win here? (A tie or even a loss could suffice depending on the results of other games that night, including the United States going to Mexico and Panama hosting Honduras, but Herdman made it clear to his players that they had to focus entirely on themselves. Game.)
Historically, little has separated the two camps. Costa Rica are a difficult team to play at home, at altitude and The Ticos are still in the qualifying mix, with everything to play for. The game in Edmonton was nervous, physical and tight despite the supposed cold weather advantage for the Canadians. The Costa Ricans fought hard before finally having to accept a 1-0 defeat. Here they will fight harder.
WATCH | Canada beats Costa Rica in Edmonton:
But before virtually every game the Canadiens have played in this remarkable year, a similar case could be made against them. When a team hasn’t been to a World Cup for nearly four decades, there’s an easy way to counter any optimistic argument. Qualifying seemed nearly impossible on that night in Florida. The road ahead was so long and the history of failure longer.
Nothing from the past mattered. A new, happier story for Canada has been written, one unlikely outcome after unlikely outcome.
“You start to believe that anything can happen,” Herdman said. When he took over this team in 2018, it was ranked 94th in the world by FIFA, one place above the Faroe Islands, and 10th in CONCACAF, behind even Curaçao and Trinidad and Tobago. Today, Canada ranks 33rd in the world, its highest ever, and sits several rungs closer to the top when it comes to big stories in world sport.
The impossible now seems inevitable.
“We have Costa Rica sitting right in front of us,” Herdman said. “Let’s do it.”
WATCH | Meet Team Canada: