The opportunities came one after another. From distance and from close range. From corners, free kicks and open play. The fearless upstarts from Canada who have spent the past couple of years upending North American’s football long-standing order had arrived on the global stage and were taking it to the world’s No 2 team.
All of them shone on Monday night, from the stars to the supporting cast. Stephen Eustaquio, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Alphonso Davies, Richie Laryea, Junior Hoilett, Alistair Johnston and the ageless captain Atiba Hutchinson, three months shy of his 40th birthday, made demands of Belgium’s creaking backline and their world-class goalkeeper. Any one of them might have written themselves into history as Canada’s first goalscorer at a men’s World Cup.
The uptempo attacking verve that had defined the Canadians’ buzzsaw tear through Concacaf qualifying – and their first men’s World Cup appearance in nearly four decades – produced no fewer than 10 shots in the first half hour. Each successive attempt sent Canada’s pack of travelling fans, already in full throat from the team’s first emergence to Drake’s Started from the Bottom and a rousing singalong to Canada’s national anthem, into a deafening wall of sound.
Then, one minute from half-time, a dream start spiralled into a nightmare. From almost nothing Michy Batshuayi ran onto Toby Alderweireld’s inch-perfect ball and clinically buried it into the far corner of the net, leaving a constellation of white shirts frozen in stunned silence. It was the Belgians’ first solid chance of the game and, ultimately, all they needed to escape with three charmed points.
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“We approached the game with the right mentality,” said Hutchinson, the lone Canadian player who was alive the last time the country played in a men’s World Cup. “There’s six more points to play for. Everybody in our change room knows what we’re capable of doing. It’s just a game that didn’t go our way today.”
Canada’s return to the sport’s biggest event after a 36-year absence was never going to be easy. Drawn into a group with a pair of European giants fresh off runs to the last four in 2018 – a Belgian side in the winter of a golden generation and Croatia, runners-up four years ago – Les Rouges always faced an uphill climb to reach the knockout stage.
But this one, a 1-0 defeat in a match they largely dominated, will sting. And not just because Davies, the 22-year-old Bayern Munich full-back and this swaggering group’s undisputed star, was denied from the spot in the 10th minute after the unflappable Thibaut Courtois dived correctly to his right.
Teams simply don’t play this well and lose very often. Canada became the first side to attempt at least 20 shots and one penalty in a game while failing to score since 1978. The advanced stats only added further context to the injustice: the Canadians’ 2.6 expected goals were the fourth-most in a World Cup loss since 1966.
“We won due to our experience and the quality of our goalkeeper and a few other things,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “Canada was better than us, but in the end the win is more important than playing well. We did what we had to do. But we have to be realistic: against bigger teams, we would have lost this match.”
Canada are no closer to the country’s first ever World Cup goal than when the night started, yet one can’t help but marvel at how far they’ve come. Eight years ago, Les Rouges were 122nd in the Fifa rankings – below the likes of Lesotho, Palestine and St Kitts – having been frozen out of the final round of Concacaf qualifying once again by an 8-1 bludgeoning at the hands of Honduras. They hadn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup since their first and only appearance back in 1986, when they crashed out of the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the USSR.
But their prospects have shifted dramatically under John Herdman, their 47-year-old manager from Consett in County Durham, who was already a national hero after guiding Canada’s women’s team to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Buoyed by a glut of young stars who have developed into major contributors at European clubs, among them Champions League winner Davies (Bayern Munich), David (Lille), Buchanan (Club Brugge) and Cyle Larin (Besiktas), they were 17 games unbeaten across three grueling rounds of Concacaf qualifying until the final window of games and finished clear of both Mexico and the United States at the top of the group.
“I’m proud of the performance,” an emotional Herdman said after the game. “But you need to take three points in your first game. We had an opportunity tonight to be top of the group, that was the mission, and we missed it. But these lads showed that they can live on this stage and I think they made the fans proud and made them feel that they belong here.”
Herdman’s wholesale culture change bodes well for 2026, when Canada co-host the World Cup along with the US and Mexico. But with a suddenly vital match with Croatia in four days’ time, looking ahead is the last thing on his mind.
“We’re gonna go and eff Croatia, that’s as simple as it gets,” he said. “That’s our next mission now.”