Skip to main content
opinion

Canada's Alphonso Davies looks dejected after the match as Canada are eliminated from the World Cup contention on Nov. 27..HANNAH MCKAY/Reuters

For about 20 minutes on Sunday, Canada stood astride the world of soccer. With Saudi Arabia and Japan doing a slow fade, Canada was now the World Cup’s surprise package.

Everyone had been already been charmed by its Cinderella story, its high-energy style and the fact that it is not America. But up a goal on Croatia? That’s something else.

Those were fun times for Canadian soccer fans. Real glory days.

Unfortunately, the first 20 minutes were followed by another hour and a bit. Canada eventually lost 4-1. It became the second team eliminated from this World Cup.

Given the quality of the Canadians’ performances here in Qatar, it’s a disappointment. Even the most hardened neutral would agree this Canadian team deserves one more meaningful game.

But the best parts of Sunday’s match give this team and this program something more than a foundation. Now they have a springboard. They are people of substance on the global scene. A virtuous circle of competence has been created.

Canada vs. Croatia: Final score, full highlights and what happens next for Canada

The Canadian soccer superfans trekking to Qatar for the World Cup

Sunday’s game started at 7 p.m. local time. Croatia clocked in for its shift at 7:02 p.m..

In the seconds before that, Canada streamed up the field through 10 ball-watching Croatians. Tajon Buchanan knocked a cross into the box. Alphonso Davies streaked forward undefended and met it with his head: 1-0 Canada.

The Khalifa Stadium went wild. Canada had just carved up European soccer royalty like a Thanksgiving turkey. There may be better goals scored at this World Cup, but it is hard to imagine one that will look so easy.

And of course, it was Davies. Canada’s best men’s player scoring Canada’s first goal at a World Cup. That’s how they draw it up in marketing, not in the dressing room.

For 15 more minutes, Canada had the run of play. The entire place was buzzing. The Canadians in the crowd were in aural control.

Canada's Atiba Hutchinson vies for the ball with Croatia's Marcelo Brozovic and Luka Modric.Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

But class won out. Forced to come forward, Croatia began to assert itself in midfield. Its key turner in that part of the field, Luka Modric, hit the ignition and began driving the game.

All of Canada’s vigour turned tenuous. Croatia began probing weaknesses on the flanks, and through the middle. Basically, everywhere.

A first Croatian goal was ruled just offside. Canada gave up more ground. A second goal counted. By the half, the lead had turned into a deficit. Now it was Canada’s turn to be cut up.

In the second half, Canada had opportunities. In particular, the Croatian ‘keeper turned a Jonathan David shot over the bar.

But the game had been slowed to a chess match in the middle of the park. Croatia was always winning that sort of contest. On the third goal, the Canadian defence had been reduced to total confusion. By the fourth, we’d been reduced to pure comedy.

By the time the final whistle blew, it wasn’t a match so much as an escape. If Canada learns nothing more than “Don’t shoot your mouth off before a World Cup match,” then it’s worth something.

But though Canada is out, there is still work to do.

“We’re disappointed at not scoring a goal or winning a point, but we’ve learned what we need to do in future to improve Canadian soccer,” said the Canada coach.

The Canada coach who said that was Tony Waiters, back in 1986, after his team got its doors blown off by the Soviet Union.

As it turned out, Waiters was wrong.

Croatia's Dejan Lovren and Josip Juranovic celebrate.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

That’s the thing with moral victories. They have a way of fizzling once the spotlight wanders away onto the next shiny, new thing. Victorious victories are what people remember.

So there’s still pressure on this team. At least, there should be.

Being in it with Belgium and scoring first on Croatia is something, but it will mean less if Canada fails to put up points against Morocco. Having begun it with on a national soccer high, losing three in a row would be ending it with a low moan.

Because Morocco still has an excellent chance of advancing after beating Belgium, there won’t be any lack of motivation on that side. This time, Canada ought not give them any more.

We still haven’t decided how this World Cup went for Canada. Despite the early elimination, it’s trending better than anticipated. The team has no results, but it has created plenty of buzz.

For the next four years, no one outside North America will be paying any attention to the Canadian program. Nobody in Europe, South America, Africa or Asia cares what Canada (or the United States, or Mexico) does outside a World Cup context. So this is Canada’s last chance to speak up for itself.

Hopefully, there is still some urgency to leave the rest of the soccer world impressed, and maybe even a little worried.