Canada showed Wednesday it belonged at the World Cup. But there is work to do in putting its opponent away.
While the Canadian men shone in their return to the soccer showcase after a 36-year absence, they failed to convert a slew of chances in a 1-0 loss to Belgium.
The fact they pushed the second-ranked team to the limit is something to celebrate. But they now find themselves in a position where they will be eliminated from knockout-round contention if they lose Sunday against No. 12 Croatia, which tied No. 22 Morocco 0-0 earlier Wednesday in Group F play.
Herdman said he told his players in a post-game huddle that he was proud of them. Then he presented the next challenge, saying: “We got a big effing game coming up against Croatia.”
The 41st-ranked Canadians looked anything but awed at the occasion, repeatedly forcing the Belgians onto the back foot. But while Canada outshot Belgium 21-9, it only managed three shots on target – the same as the Red Devils.
Canada had a glorious chance to score its first-ever World Cup goal and take the lead in the 10th minute, only to see Thibaut Courtois, the Inspector Gadget-like Belgian goalkeeper, stop Alphonso Davies’s penalty attempt after Yannick Carrasco was yellow-carded for a handball.
The 22-year-old from Edmonton, Canada’s marquee man, had clearly wanted to take the penalty. He clutched his face in disappointment after the miss.
“It was a big moment,” Herdman said. “We were waiting for that first goal [at the World Cup].
“I’m proud of Fonzie. He’s picked the ball up [to take the penalty]. It’s a big moment for any player to do that. You’re carrying the weight of the nation after years of waiting.”
The pace and press of the Canadians caused the Belgians real discomfort in a first half that saw the Canadians launch 14 shots – the most without scoring in the first half of a World Cup match since England (17) against Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, according to sports analytics company Opta.
Belgium attempted four shots in the first half and made one count.
Michy Batshuayi quietened the pro-Canada crowd in the 44th minute, bringing down a well-flighted long ball from defender Toby Alderweireld that Canadian Steven Vitoria just missed getting his foot to. Batshuayi outpaced the chasing Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea and calmly beat goalkeeper Milan Borjan for a 1-0 lead.
Borjan punched the ball away in disgust.
The Red Devils had more time on the ball and more chances on the counterattack in the second half. But Canada never stopped looking dangerous. It was tense right up to the final whistle after five minutes of stoppage time.
Canada finishes group-stage play Dec. 1 against Morocco.
Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne, who reportedly earns some $640,000 a week at Manchester City, showed his displeasure with his teammates. Arms waving, he resembled a windmill for much of the match.
The normally smooth Belgian manager Roberto Martinez twisted himself into a knot as he tried to put a shine on his team’s narrow escape.
“I think technically it was our worst performance. Was it the worst game? No. No because it was a win in a World Cup. And to be able to win in a World Cup when you didn’t play well, it doesn’t happen by accident. It’s because we’ve been together for six years.”
Canada’s last World Cup outing was 13,316 days ago, according to Canada Soccer – a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union on June 9, 1986, in Leon, Mexico.
Brian Mulroney was prime minister at the time. Bob Gainey had captained the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup the previous month, defeating the Calgary Flames in five games. And Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All topped the Canadian music charts.
Canada took the field for warmups Wednesday to the sounds of Drake’s Started From the Bottom.
“Now we’re here,” is the next line.
The loud and proud Canadian contingent in the crowd of 40,432 at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium loved it. Clad in red and waving Maple Leafs, they roared at every name during the introduction of the Canadian starting lineup and Herdman.
It was a goosebumps-giving reception worthy of such a long wait.
“They were brilliant,” Herdman said of the support. “To see that many Canadians here and they walked away proud, I’m sure. Proud and feeling that we are football nation.”
Proud but disappointed.
As promised, Herdman was able to field his strongest lineup with injury concerns Davies, Borjan and Stephen Eustaquio all in the starting 11.
Borjan was in goal behind back three of Miller, Vitoria and Alistair Johnston. The midfield was Davies, Eustaquio, captain Atiba Hutchinson and Laryea, with Junior Hoilett, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan up front.
The 3-4-3 formation became a 5-2-3 when the Belgians had the ball.
An errant Johnston pass led to a deflected Batshuayi shot in the first minute that went straight at Borjan. But the Canadians came right back and attacked to the chants of “Canada, Canada.”
David almost connected on a Buchanan cross in the seventh. Buchanan forced a save from Courtois off the ensuing corner, with the Canadian player pleading for handball.
After video review, Zambia referee Janny Sikazwe pointed to the spot. But Davies’s penalty was too close to Courtois as he dove to his right.
The 6-foot-6 Real Madrid goalkeeper is the current holder of the Yashin Trophy as the world’s best ‘keeper.
In the second half, the Canadians attacked the end where most of their fans were and David came close with a header that flashed just wide.
Herdman moved Davies up front and brought on Cyle Larin and Ismael Kone in the 58th minute. Five minutes later, Buchanan ballooned a shot that needed an air traffic controller en route to a walkway behind the Belgian goal.
Hutchinson, born in February, 1983, is the only player in the current Canada roster who was alive during the 1986 World Cup. The Besiktas skipper, the oldest outfield player at the Qatar tournament, earned his 99th cap, a Canadian men’s record.
Herdman, who was 10 when the Mexico World Cup kicked off, becomes the first person to coach a team at both the men’s and women’s FIFA World Cup. He coached both New Zealand and Canada previously at the Women’s World Cup and came into Wednesday’s game with a 32-10-5 record at the Canadian men’s helm.
In kicking off at 10 p.m. local time at the impressive 40,000-capacity Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the Canadians escaped the heat. It was around 21 C at kickoff, with air conditioning cooling the venue despite the circular opening in the roof.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield addressed the team before the match. Herdman said in an interview on the eve of the opener his own keywords were “courage and discipline.”
“On our day I think we can compete with anyone,” he said.
Herdman was proved right.
The Belgians were without injured star striker Romelu Lukaku, who has 68 goals in 102 appearances for the Red Devils. Captain Eden Hazard, meanwhile, has made just six appearances for Real Madrid this season.
Belgium has not lost its opening match in its past seven World Cup appearances (5-0-2). In group play the Belgians are now unbeaten in 13 straight (8-0-5) and have won eight in a row.
Belgium, which is making its 14th appearance at the World Cup, finished third four years ago in Russia and was a quarter-finalist in 2018 in Brazil.
The Belgians were ranked No. 1 in the world from October, 2018, when they dislodged France, until March, 2022 when Brazil took over top spot.
Wednesday’s game was at a virtually brand new venue lit up by neon renditions of the Canadian and Belgian flags on the exterior. Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, some 20 kilometres west of Doha, was inaugurated in December, 2020.