Ahead of this World Cup, few serious soccer fans around the globe would have seen Canada play. Fewer care that it romped through qualifying. And next to none would rate the country.
At worst, they’d think of the Canadians as nobodies. At best, fans might have called Canada an unknown factor going into this tournament.
Now everyone knows.
Belgium beat Canada 1-0 on Wednesday in this country’s first men’s World Cup appearance in 36 years. But what a loss.
This was no gentle surrender. The Canadians put in a come-out-swinging-and-go-down-the-same-way sort of effort.
Their struggle should leave Canada “proud and feeling like we are a football nation,” Canadian head coach John Herdman said afterward. Maybe we can even stop saying that now.
Belgium is the No. 2 ranked team in the world. Canada hasn’t played a side of this quality in nearly 20 years. However, for huge swaths of Wednesday’s game, Canada made the 30-something soccer idols on the Belgian team look geriatric. One can say without fear of sounding sour that the better team lost.
The evening’s tone was first set during the introductions. Canadian fans were in the vocal ascendance, and by some distance. Belgium’s fans were cowed into silence, and their team followed.
From the outset, Canada came at the Belgians from multiple angles and in numbers.
On the field, Belgium’s great star, Kevin De Bruyne, could be seen shrieking at his teammates. He’s not a famous shrieker.
Mr. De Bruyne would eventually be chosen man of the match.
“I don’t know why [I was given] the trophy,” he shrugged afterward. “Maybe because of the name.”
One of many great Canadian images of the evening was Mr. De Bruyne having the ball pulled through his legs by Canada’s Stephen Eustaquio. The crowd trilled in delight and surprise. Presumably a few of the roughly hundred million people who watch a typical World Cup match were feeling the same way.
In the ninth minute, the high-water mark of Canadian men’s soccer to that point was achieved.
Tajon Buchanan whipped a shot in the Belgian box. Yannick Carrasco left a hand dangling. The ball connected with it. Penalty.
Finally, here was Canada’s first-ever goal in World Cup competition.
Canada’s star turn, Alphonso Davies, does not typically take penalties. But he wanted a chance at the big one. According to Mr. Herdman, Mr. Davies made that decision himself.
“I’m proud of Fonzie,” Mr. Herdman said. “He’s picked the ball up.”
Proud, but maybe not pleased. Mr. Davies was left standing over the ball for what seemed like an hour as the referee got himself organized. Then he took a feeble shot that was saved.
There’s a whole possible future that stretches out after that goal in which Canada sits atop Group F after the first slate of games. In that scenario, Canada is in control. In a few days, we may be looking back at that as one of the great missed opportunities in Canadian sport.
Still, there were plenty of other chances. Canada took 14 shots in the first half. That’s not a lot. It’s an absolute ton. Belgium had two.
But if Belgium is old and slow, it’s also smart. In a moment of pause near the end of the first half, Toby Alderweireld stroked a ball 60 yards up the field. It went over and through the middle of the Canadian defence and into the path of his sprinting teammate, Michy Batshuayi. It was a pretty goal, and one that no top-class team should ever allow.
In the second half, Belgium was forced to resupply their lineup. It spent a lot of that second period backing up as well. But all of Canada’s victories on the night were moral.
Asked what Canada will work on for three days until their next match, Mr. Herdman said, “Do some shooting practice.”
It’s a general rule that World Cups never surprise you. An outsider occasionally sneaks into a knockout round and gets everyone excited. But it always shakes down to the familiar names.
It’s early days, but Qatar is beginning to feel like the first crapshoot World Cup. Saudi Arabia has beaten Argentina. Japan has beaten Germany. Morocco tied Croatia.
There are a lot of good reasons why things are weird this time around, but still. Lionel Messi & Co. are not supposed to lose to a bunch of guys who all play in a third-rate league no one’s ever heard of.
It calls into question one of the business pillars of the game. If the guys they’re telling you are the best actually aren’t, then why are people buying their jerseys and paying a subscription to watch them?
In its quiet way, Canada has become part of that seismic rumbling. Whoever thought Belgium had a chance to win this whole thing yesterday won’t think that tomorrow. No giants have yet fallen, but they are wobbling.
Next up for Canada: Croatia.
Taking a page out of the playbook of Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Mr. Herdman decided to profanely taunt the finalists in the past World Cup.
“We’re going to go and eff Croatia,” Mr. Herdman said in an interview immediately after the match.
The Croatian team has TVs just like everyone else. If Belgium and the world were caught by surprise on Wednesday night, Croatia won’t be.
And though Mr. Herdman said the group is now “wide open,” that’s only true if his team starts converting. As is stands, a loss in the next game would eliminate Canada.
But that’s a problem for Sunday. For right now, Canada deserves to enjoy its global moment.
That’s the power of the World Cup. A national team can develop slowly or in great spurts in its own backyard. It can do all kinds of remarkable things that get it headlines back home.
But until you do it on this stage, the world doesn’t know what to believe about you. Having now seen Canada, everyone everywhere knows this country is for real.
In that sense, Wednesday night wasn’t a debut. It was a departure. Now, all of a sudden, a lot more people are interested in the destination.