Before the start of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, back when he was in charge of an ascendant Canadian team headed into a home event, John Herdman was all nervous energy.
Canada’s coach had plans, backup plans and counterplans should someone figure out those plans. You could explore every nuance of those plans because Herdman seemed to give two press conferences a day.
These talks were more than news updates. They had a therapeutic feel to them. Herdman was near tears more than once.
One of the group stage opponents was New Zealand, a team Herdman had once coached. In one of his talks, Herdman described New Zealand’s tactical game plan in detail, then explained how it could be neutralized.
Someone asked what effect hearing that sort of breakdown might have on an opponent.
“I think they have to do it better than we can do it better than them.”
This pretournament data dump seemed designed to confuse and disorient the enemy.
Its actual effect? Confusing and disorienting Canada.
The team never looked right. The Canadians staggered into the knockout rounds, and got bounced (hard) in the quarter-finals.
That was a while ago. Herdman’s come up in the world since then. But the lead-in to this World Cup is starting to give you the tingles. It’s not exactly the same – Herdman’s learned to make himself less available, for example.
But at least in the prelims, these two World Cups, seven years and two teams apart, are starting to feel similar – discombobulated, slightly frantic, everyone thinking too hard and still getting things wrong.
Ever since Canada qualified for this tournament last spring, things have been askew. There was a weeks-long standoff between players and Canada Soccer over money. That spilled into public when the players refused to play a home friendly, which had to be cancelled hours before its start.
Once that uprising was quelled, another public standoff began. This time the team’s biggest star, Alphonso Davies, wrangled with bosses over image rights. At one point, Davies publicly urged retailers to stop selling his Canada jersey.
This weird organizational disconnect between the people who think they are in charge (the coaches and executives) and the people who are in charge (the players) has travelled to Qatar with the team.
Davies arrived to camp late after choosing to stay with his pro team in Munich, where he was rehabbing an injured hamstring.
On Saturday, he appeared with teammates for the first time. The media were allowed to watch him do some light stretching.
Asked about it later, Herdman said no decision had been made on whether Davies would play in the first game against Belgium. He said the issue was giving him “cold sweats.”
Less than 24 hours later, Davies told TSN he was “ready to start the first game.”
This sort of thing – a coach playing coy; the player going around him and making everyone look silly – does happen. It doesn’t happen to elite teams, and it absolutely, positively does not happen at a World Cup.
After that, Herdman went silent for a couple of days.
On Tuesday – matchday minus-one, in FIFA parlance – he addressed the media in his first official press conference.
About 150 press showed up for the 3:30 p.m. update. Representatives of Wednesday’s opponent, Belgium, were to follow at 4:15 p.m.
At a World Cup, these sorts of things are organized like military manoeuvres. Here was Canada’s soft opening on Broadway after a 36-year absence. First, Canada would meet the global media, and then a day later everybody else on Earth.
After 10 minutes had gone by, a delay was announced. After 20, it was reiterated. After 35, it was announced that Belgium would go first. After 40 minutes, Canada finally showed up.
Herdman rushed up on stage looking like thunder. Asked jokingly if traffic had been bad, he glowered for moment, and then agreed.
“We’ll look into that internally,” he mumbled.
A Canada Soccer spokesperson later confirmed that traffic had been the reason for being 40 minutes late. By Google Maps, the team hotel is 25 minutes from the main media centre.
Herdman then confirmed what Davies had already confirmed: “Fonzie’s fit now. … The dark clouds have shifted. … We’ll be all 100 per cent.”
Time for Canada to buy a lottery ticket. Clearly, miracles are afoot.
Maybe circumstances really have conspired against the Canadian team for the past, oh, six months. Maybe Davies and others really have made remarkable, simultaneous physical progress in the past 72 hours. Maybe traffic really was bad.
But the only certain thing is the impression left by all this – that of disarray.
Thus far, Canada has that same look as Herdman’s last World Cup charge. A bit too clever and not clever enough.
Belgium didn’t help much in that regard.
Defender Jan Vertonghen and coach Roberto Martinez – both veteran faces familiar to every fan of the game – were at their ease. They were nice enough to not mention being held up, though Martinez did make an oblique reference to timing things out exactly at a World Cup.
Both spoke openly and at length about a variety of topics. Those included detailed updates on the fitness of all Belgian players.
They had words of lavish praise for Canada. They’d clearly been well-prepped beforehand (both mentioned the same obscure fact – that their opponents last played at a World Cup in 1986).
You left the room thinking that there are two ways of carrying yourself at the world’s biggest sporting event, and that you’d just seen both of them. The amateur way, and then the professional one.
Of course, none of this matters if Canada plays well. Sometimes great things emerge from chaos. Maybe the Canadians are better off worrying about extraneous details – even if they’re getting them wrong – than they are about the immensity of the occasion.
Maybe. But not usually.
For his part, Martinez said he expected Belgium to win, but that one never knows.
“The emotional aspect is in Canada’s favour,” he said.
Maybe so. But how about the drive to the stadium? Has anyone remembered to book a bus beforehand?