In March 2018, shortly after John Herdman transitioned from coaching Canadian women to Canadian men, he held his first camp in Murcia, Spain. He knew he had skeptical minds to change and wounded hearts to mend. He soon sat down with goalkeeper Milan Borjan – by Herdman’s reckoning, one of the few big names to bother to show up – to talk about where the team had been and where they could go. together.
“I remember sitting with this man, the passion coming out of him,” Herdman said this week ahead of Canada’s potentially decisive World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Thursday night. If there’s any tacit certainty about Herdman’s otherwise top-secret training, it’s that Borjan will be in goal – largely because of that long-running conversation in Murcia.
“I knew I wanted to wage war every moment with this man,” Herdman said.
Herdman also recalled how honest Borjan had been during that opening summit. He felt let down by a program that at the time ranked 94th in the world, one place ahead of the Faroe Islands, which has a population of 48,000. Borjan wanted to give back to the country that had served as a refuge for his family when he was 13, and all he did was lose. Where was the honor in that?
“Canada has given everything to my family,” Borjan said in January. (His family had fled the Croatian War of Independence and eventually settled in Hamilton, where they still live.) “When someone gives you that much love, you have to give it back.”
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Herdman was won over by the intensity of Borjan’s desire as much as his game. In their first match together, a friendly against New Zealand, he faced no shots on target. Borjan’s presence always made an immediate and lasting impression on Herdman. The new coach felt he was in the company of someone special.
“When the big moments come, people like that are going to pass,” Herdman said.
Borjan stood out time and time again during Canada’s remarkable World Cup qualifying run. He made a desperate last-second save to preserve a 2-1 win over Mexico. Away against Honduras, his blocking of a header in goal helped turn an eventual draw or loss into a 2-0 win. Three days later in Hamilton, of all places in the storybook, Borjan made a spectacular diving save en route to another 2-0 victory, this time against the Americans. He then shouted at the standing crowd, punching his chest hard enough to jeopardize a heart even the size of his own.
Iconic track pants
In retrospect, Herdman could have been forgiven had he chosen one of Canada’s other goaltenders to lead this campaign. Maxime Crépeau, currently on the poster for LAFC, is particularly illustrated. When Borjan missed last October’s qualifying window with COVID, Crépeau played admirably in all three games.
He’s also, overall, probably more technically sound than Borjan, and certainly more modern in his game. (Crépeau is 27; Borjan is 34.) Borjan is a classic shooter who plays close to his line, and he is not good with his feet. Herdman, supremely analytical in many ways, might have decided that Borjan’s passion was only so important and it was time for a more clinical approach. The aura is difficult to quantify.
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CanMNT’s road to Qatar 2022 is a look at the Canadian men’s road to World Cup qualification, featuring special guests and hosted by Brendan Dunlop and former CanMNT goaltender Craig Forrest. It is available everywhere all Radio-Canada digital platforms: GemCBCSports.ca, Radio-Canada Sports Youtube, Radio-Canada Olympics Facebook and Twitter
But during the next window, in November in the frozen city of Edmonton, Herdman went straight back to Borjan, who showed off his now-iconic sweatpants for the first time. Canada have won each of their five games since, and Borjan had the shutout in four of them. Never mind the fashion, Borjan announced; it is a game of results, and its results are indisputable.
“It was never in doubt for me,” Herdman said. “On big nights, this guy understands how to run a game. He knows how to manipulate a locker room at the right time. He just has that experience which has really helped this young group of men.”
Almost as an afterthought, Herdman added: “And he’s a good goalkeeper.”
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On Wednesday evening, as heavy rain had cooled the air in San Jose, Canada arrived at the Estadio Nacional to take a walk on the wet grass. After a few minutes of blissful communion with Herdman and fellow veteran Atiba Hutchinson, who had come so far from Murcia, Borjan summoned the rest of his teammates to midfield, where they circled him in concentric circles.
He reminded them of who they are and where they are now: a win, a goal and almost certainly another spectacular save away from World Cup qualification.
That’s how you feel in the company of someone special.
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