A World Cup is about sports, but it’s also about global communications. With several hundred million people watching, there’s a chance to project the best version of your country to a worldwide audience.
Canada hadn’t had that chance for 36 years. For one day here, it got it very right.
After its battling loss to Belgium in the first game, everyone was talking about Canada. So young. So fearless. So much fun. Who knew? This was a thousand tourism campaigns being shoehorned into one, 90-minute broadcast.
Afterward, we were everyone’s new soccer crush. Then Canada went and opened its big, collective mouth.
What’s the one-line takeaway about Canada for the world’s soccer-loving citizens who couldn’t find Toronto on a map? ‘Canada: big talkers; not so big finishers.’
Croatia beat Canada 4-1 on Sunday, a result that eliminated the Canadians from the World Cup after two matches.
A lot of good soccer things have happened here for the Canadian program. More good things happened on Sunday.
The men’s team scored its very first goal at a World Cup, through Alphonso Davies.
The game kicked off at 7 p.m. local time. Canada’s opponent, Croatia, punched in for its shift at 7:02. In between, Canada slid the ball from goal to goal among 11 ball-watching Croatians. Three passes and then Mr. Davies headed it into the back of the net. There may be better goals scored at this tournament, but none will look so simple.
For 20 more minutes, Canada put Croatia on its heels. If you squinted just right, you could imagine this country astride the soccer world.
Then the next 70 minutes happened. Fielding arguably the best midfield in this tournament, Croatia slowed the game to its preferred pace. It pinned Canada back. Then the Croatians carved up the Canadians like a Thanksgiving turkey.
Croatia scored four unanswered goals. The last one was so comical and took so long to develop that the entire Croatian bench had time to run to the sideline and cheer as the ball went in.
The result was 4-1 Croatia. Canada’s World Cup doesn’t officially end until Thursday, when it plays Morocco, but it’s already over.
It was only once the Croatia match finished that the real beating began.
After Canada’s first game here, Canadian coach John Herdman said in a sideline interview that he’d told his team to “eff Croatia” in the next match. He repeated the line to the team. And in a news conference.
Given several chances, he could not bring himself to walk it back. Every time it was brought up, Mr. Herdman seemed tickled by his own cheekiness.
This kind of stuff can be a bit of a lark in the professional sports context. When Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri did it from a stage in front of the team’s home arena, it created a mythology. In Toronto. Brooklyn barely noticed. I mean, c’mon – Toronto?
But when you move that sort of profane challenge into an international context, you’re picking a real fight. Based on the evidence of Sunday, it was one Canada was not capable of finishing.
Croatia took it very amiss. Did it mean anything in terms of the game. Who knows? All that matters is that Croatia said it did. It was very keen to make sure Mr. Herdman got his credit for the result.
“I want to thank the Canadian coach for the motivation,” said double-goal-scorer Andrej Kramaric. “In the end, Croatia demonstrated who eff’d who.”
Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic made a point of praising the Canadian players – “so full of energy, of power” – and even more of a point of singling out Mr. Herdman.
“When I lose … I always congratulate the winner. He was not there, and that’s his way of doing things. He’s obviously mad,” Mr. Dalic said.
In World Cup news conference terms, impugning a fellow manager’s sportsmanship is a grievous assault. Mr. Dalic kept swinging.
“He is a good coach. He is a high-quality professional. But it will take some time for him to learn some things.”
Hey, won’t someone get that guy off him before people get hurt?
In Canada, we will tell ourselves this tournament was a qualified success. We scored a goal! We’re No. 41! Wait’ll they get a load of us in four years!
And that’s all true. There’s no end to the nice things we’re willing to tell ourselves.
But the impression left everywhere else will be of a country that is very young. In soccer terms, in energetic terms, but also in the sense of being juvenile.
A country lobbing insults around because it’s fun to make the news, and being delighted that others took their bait.
From Mr. Herdman’s reaction afterward – he kept saying “pride” and variations thereof on a loop – it’s not clear Canada knows enough to be embarrassed.
Asked if he regretted the comment, Mr. Herdman said: “No. Not at all.” He managed to keep a smile.
A few minutes later, someone asked another variation of it: “Do you think you made a mistake?” Mr. Herdman, the smile now starting to slip: “Not in the first 20 minutes, no.”
So like a lot of first experiences, this one was good and bad.
Canada proved that it belongs at this level. There’s lots of improvement to be made. Canada still hasn’t taken a single point from five historic World Cup games. Beating Morocco in its final group game would go a ways to buffing some shine back onto this outing.
The bad is that we comported ourselves in an unsatisfactory way. We had a chance to give the world a new vision of this country, one that isn’t beavers, Mounties and hot prime ministers.
For just a few minutes, Canada’s players took that opportunity. They were the unlikely soccer power growing in the north. They were the would-be giant killers.
But someone in charge thought about it, and said: “Eff that.”