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explainer

For the first time in decades, Canada’s men’s soccer team has a real shot at qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. It’s been a long, bumpy road to get here, punctuated with nation-uniting highs (beating Mexico in Edmonton in subzero temperatures and a blanket of snow) to grueling lows (a 16-game winless streak from October, 2012 to May, 2014).

Coming off a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica on March 24, CanMNT will have another chance to clinch their spot at the World Cup when they play Jamaica at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday, March 27.

Canada’s 1-0 loss to Costa Rica was the Canadians’ first loss in 12 games during this final phase of qualifying. And it shattered a winning streak that lasted six games.

Canadian men’s soccer team made every possible mistake at World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica

One of those winning matches saw the men’s team net a 2-0 win over the U.S., Canada’s first World Cup victory over the United States since 1980. And following that, the men’s team, led by coach John Herdman, scored a 2-0 win over El Salvador on Feb. 2.

The match allowed Canada to maintain its top-spot position. With two games remaining in the qualifying round, here’s everything you need to know about the Canadian men’s soccer team, including who the key players are and what it’ll take for the team to make it to the World Cup.

(Hint: Now is the perfect time to jump on the #CanMNT bandwagon.)

How close is Canada to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup?

Canada is currently ranked in first place in the CONCACAF regional qualifier. For this World Cup, the top three teams automatically qualify for Qatar.

On the road to the World Cup, Canada still has two more games to play in March: At home in Toronto against Jamaica on March 27, and away to Panama on March 30.

Barring some kind of catastrophic meltdown in these last games, they are almost certainly going to qualify, Daniel Squizzato, Canadian soccer writer and enthusiast, told The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Squizzato explained that the qualification process in CONCACAF (the regional zone in which Canada competes) is usually decided in a final round comprised of six teams, known as the “Hexagonal.” (You may hear your soccer friends refer to it as “the Hex.”)

In COVID-19 times, it’s been reconfigured to feature eight teams, known as the “Octagonal,” which was the result of scheduling changes during the pandemic.

Each team plays each other team twice, once at home and once away. The top three teams qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-placed team goes to a playoff, Mr. Squizzato said.

The Canadian men’s soccer team is on a roll, but they owe a debt to the women

“None of the remaining games will be easy. But given the form Canada is in, it is much more likely that they will qualify than not,” Mr. Squizzato said.

So far, Qatar, Germany, Denmark, Brazil, France, Belgium, Croatia, Spain, Serbia, England, Switzerland, Netherlands, Argentina, Iran, South Korea, Ecuador, and Uruguay have already qualified for the tournament.

So, what’s CONCACAF then?

CONCACAF is the regional zone that includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Each regional zone gets a certain number of qualification spots for each World Cup.

For this World Cup, Mr. Squizzato said, CONCACAF has 3.5 spots, meaning three teams from the region will directly qualify, and one will have a chance to qualify via a playoff with a team from another confederation.

How does the Canadian men’s soccer team rank on the world stage?

Canada is currently ranked 33rd in the world, the highest it’s ever been, while Mexico is ranked 12th and the U.S. is 13th. A total of 32 teams make it to the World Cup.

When was the last time the Canadian men’s soccer team qualified for the World Cup?

The only time Canada qualified for the World Cup was for the 1986 edition, held in Mexico. People remember the Canadians didn’t score a goal. They forget they lost only 1-0 to an eventual semi-finalist, France, writes Cathal Kelly.

World Cup: Leon, Mexico: June 1, 1986. Canada's Paul James fights for the ball while France's Jean Tigana, right, keeps him away during the second half of the Canada vs France World Cup soccer match. France beat Canada 1 - 0. Credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters.Charles Platiau/REUTERS

In July and August, 1993, Canada faced Australia in a two-legged play-off round, in a bid to make it to the World Cup. But Canada went home empty-handed in that contest.

“Since then,” Mr. Squizzato said, “it’s been one disappointment after another.”

The only time Canada made it to the Hexagonal round was in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup. It finished in last. Generally speaking, Canada has slipped up against middle-level teams like Honduras and El Salvador. Games against the big two of the U.S. and Mexico have always assumed to be losses.

In 2012, the program reached its nadir. Needing only a draw against Honduras to advance to the next round of World Cup qualifying, Canada came completely apart in an 8-1 loss. “I know [the fans] will never forgive me,” manager Stephen Hart said afterward. “But on behalf of my players, forgive them.”

Canada went on a 16-game winless streak from October 2012 to May, 2014. Included in that was a 14-month stretch during which Canada scored only one goal. By this time, Canada had finally nailed down a coach – former Real Madrid manager Benito Floro. After a couple of draws at the tail end of this dismal run, Floro said, “For us, it isn’t important to be looking at the results right now. That will take time.”

Who are the top players on the Canadian men’s national team?

Alphonso Davies

The star of the team is 21-year-old Alphonso Davies from Edmonton. He plays left-back or winger for the Canadian team and Bayern Munich. In 2017, he became the youngest player to appear for the Canadian men’s national team. He’s been unable to play Canada’s recent World Cup qualifiers after a bout of COVID-19.

Jonathan David

When Canada has needed goals in World Cup qualifying, 22-year-old forward Jonathan David has stepped up. In this final round, David has scored four goals, bringing his overall tally to 19 goals in 25 appearances since he made his national-team debut in 2018.

Cyle Larin

The 26-year-old forward born and raised in Brampton, Ont. is now the Canadian men’s team’s top goal scorer of all-time with 23 goals in 46 appearances. He cemented his star status with the winning goal in the Canada-U.S. game on Jan. 30, just as he did against Mexico in Edmonton snow last November.

Milan Borjan

Veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan, 34, boasts 28 clean sheets in 60 appearances, including his stellar goalkeeping in the Canada-U.S. game in his hometown of Hamilton. Borjan, along with England’s Reading FC forward Deanne Rose, was named Canada Soccer’s Players of the Month for January.

When and where is the World Cup?

The World Cup will be held in Qatar from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, 2022. The tournament’s eight stadiums, seven of which were built specifically for the World Cup, are all within a 50-kilometre radius of Doha, Qatar’s capital and most populous city. The country has also built a new airport, roads, public transit systems and hotels in preparation.

Since Qatar was announced as the host country in 2010, the country has fended off corruption investigations and faced criticisms over its treatment of the migrant workers who built the tournament’s infrastructure.

An Associated Press investigation found that Qatar had employed a former CIA officer to help spy on soccer officials as part of its efforts to win the bid for the World Cup. A FIFA-commissioned probe into Qatar’s methods to win the bid concluded that there was “no evidence of any improper activity by the bid team.”

Meanwhile, an analysis by The Guardian found that 6,500 migrant workers in Qatar, mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have died in the past 10 years. Qatar has not provided full details or data on the deaths of the workers. In the last year Qatar has introduced new labour reforms, including the introduction of the minimum wage and new rules to protect workers from the country’s intense summer heat.

Further reading:

In two 2021 moments, Canada emerged as a force in world soccer

Canada’s men’s soccer went from couldn’t-give-it-away to show-me-the-money

Canadian men’s soccer team earns ‘Most Improved Side’ honours in end-of-year FIFA rankings

With win over Mexico, Canadian men’s soccer team isn’t up and coming - it’s here

With files from Cathal Kelly, Paul Attfield, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press