This week’s international football action saw the number of qualified teams for the 2022 World Cup rise to 12 teams, while several high profile names including Italy, Portugal and Uruguay saw their World Cup hopes thrown into doubt. Among the fierce fight for qualification, one unexpected name emerged in the winners column: Canada. The Canadians defeated Mexico 2-1 in Edmonton to take the lead in Concacaf, as a new generation of players look set to put their nation on the footballing map.
It is surprising that a nation with its roots intertwined with both England and France has as little footballing pedigree as Canada. They first entered the World Cup qualifying for the 1958 tournament and didn’t make a second attempt to qualify until 1970. Canada finally made it to the Finals in 1986 having won their first Concacaf championship a year earlier. It proved a brief adventure in Mexico with Canada going out uneventfully with three group stage defeats and without scoring a single goal.
Canada won a second Concacaf title in 2000, but World Cup qualification continued to elude them. Canada have produced few famous names with goalkeeper Craig Forrest proving something of a stalwart in the 1990’s, while former Werder Bremen and Tottenham midfielder Paul Stalteri proved one of their more successful exports. Fans were left fuming in 2001 when Bayern Munich Champions League winner Owen Hargreaves opted to play for England over his country of birth.
When the North American bid to host the 2026 World Cup became a reality, almost all onlookers focused on the USA and Mexico’s hopes and saw Canada as an afterthought, having not made it into the final Concacaf qualifying group for Russia 2018. Meanwhile, their World Ranking has rarely troubled the top 50, reaching an all-time low in 2014 of 122.
A New Generation
For Canada, becoming World Cup hosts has coincided with a regeneration of interest in the sport, notably the previously unheralded footballing nations of USA and Japan both managed to qualify for the Finals four years before they hosted them. Canada are following a similar path under English coach John Herdman. He has cut his teeth in coaching with Sunderland’s academy team before a stint managing the New Zealand women’s team, taking over Canada in 2018 with a mission to build a new team.
Herdman has taken Canada a long way and he’s been helped by the emergence of some gifted young players, most notably another Bayern product in Alphonso Davies. Davies announced himself on the world stage when he broke into the Bayern first team as a left-back under Hansi Flick, winning an astonishing treble of Bundelsiga, German Cup and Champions League just a year on from his senior debut in 2020. Davies had already made his Canada debut prior to breaking out at Bayern, becoming Canada’s youngest ever senior player in 2017. He offers searing pace, trickery and end product down the left side and had played a more advanced left wing position for his country than for Bayern. He is already the most decorated Canadian player ever, winning ten trophies with Bayern and a host of individual accolades including a selection to the FIFAPro World 11 in 2020.
Just as Davies was taking to world by storm in the summer of 2020, another Canadian was making waves when striker Jonathan David left Gent to join Ligue 1 side Lille for a club record Eur30 million. After an tough start, David settled into the Lille team and came up with big goals, notably the winner away to PSG as Lille shocked French football to sit at the summit of Ligue 1. On the final day of the season, it was David who grabbed the opening goal away to Angers as Lille were crowned champions. Much like Davies, David had made his Canada debut before hitting the world stage, winning his first cap in 2018. Both of these precocious talents are just 21-years old, but have already amassed a combined 54 caps and 28 goals for their country.
Qualification Within Grasp
With two world class players at his disposal, Herdman has crafted a side around those talents blending youth and experience to create an exciting team. Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan and 38-year old skipper Atiba Hutchinson provide the leadership and experience. Alongside Hutchinson in midfield, there is another bright prospect in Stephen Eustaquio, who plays his club football with Portuguese Primeira Liga outfit Pacos Ferreira. In attack, David has shared time with Besiktas striker Cyle Larin, who is proving a sensation in qualifying.
In the first two qualifying rounds, it was Larin’s goals that earned Canada’s passage to the final group stage. Once in the final stage, Canada got off to a disappointing start with a home draw against Honduras, but a Larin goal in Nashville then earned Canada a big point against their neighbors. It proved a catalyst, as Hutchinson and David grabbed early goals in a 3-0 win over El Salvador. More big away points were gained with draws away to Mexico and Jamaica before Canada finished their October slate of qualifiers by thumping Panama, 4-1.
This week saw Canada move to the top of Concacaf qualifying with a pair of big wins in frozen Alberta. David got the winner to down World Cup regulars Costa Rica, while Larin was on hand with a pair of poachers goals either side of half time to beat Mexico, 2-1. With six games to go, Canada have a single point lead over USA and two over both Mexico and Panama, meanwhile they have a seven-point lead over Costa Rica in the dreaded fifth place where World Cup elimination lies.
At the start of qualifying, fourth place and progress to a playoff would have represented success for Canada, but now a top three finish and automatic qualification is within reach. January will see away trips to El Salvador and Honduras, both of whom are out of contention. Sandwiched between those games comes the second meeting with the USA. Canada face away trips to Panama and Costa Rica in March, both of whom are currently in contention, but a positive result against the Americans could have Canada at match point by then.
The Way Forward
World Cup qualification would just be the start of the journey for Canada. The team needs the experience of tournament football to build towards being co-hosts in 2026, by which time David and Davies will both be 27 and should be at their career peaks. Mexico have far more World Cup pedigree and the USA holds greater depth of talent, but the two Canadian stars have already established themselves at the highest level of club football, proving key players for Champions League clubs, rather than squad players.
Away from the international heavyweights, many countries have shown a lot can be achieved with a well-drilled side who have top-shelf talent able to give them something extra in the final third, from Robert Lewandowski with Poland, to Gareth Bale with Wales and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Sweden. It’s too soon to dig out the ‘golden generation’ cliché, but Canada have made rapid progress in recent years and now closing on their first World Cup in a generation.