Skip to main content
opinion

Canada forward Alphonso Davies, left, defender Sam Adekugbe, centre, and forward Tajon Buchanan joke around during practice at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar on Monday, November 28, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Since postgame huddles have become a story on this team, someone asked Canadian fullback Alistair Johnston how that had gone after getting blown out by Croatia.

“It was a little different than the one after Belgium,” Johnston said. “There were no quotes that will go all over the world.”

Teammate Ismaël Koné was sitting alongside Johnston. He laughed so hard that he smacked his head against the microphone.

So how’s Canada’s World Cup going now that they’re out? We’ve graduated beyond the serious stage, the elated stage and the slightly hysterical stage. Now we’re at the silly stage.

Over the course of this tournament, Johnston – a charming, garrulous young guy – has become the team’s de facto spokesperson.

Alphonso Davies prefers talking in safe spaces with TV rights holders. So Johnston and a few others come out to the media tent up in barren, dusty Umm Salal and try to make Groundhog Day sound interesting. Great news: everyone’s still working hard; they still believe; the “brotherhood” is strong.

Johnston and Koné were out there again on Monday. Johnston handles English and does most of the talking; Koné does French and provides the laugh track. It’s a decent comedy duo.

Unlike some of their colleagues, you can tell these two are enjoying the attention.

“We’ve still got the whole country behind us,” Johnston said.

That’s probably true. Until Thursday night after they’ve finished playing Morocco. Then their World Cup ends. And then what?

Canada supporters cheer at the end of the World Cup group F soccer match between Croatia and Canada, at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. Croatia won 4-1.Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

The next World Cup will begin some time in June, 2026. As one of three co-hosts, Canada will be automatically qualified into it.

That means the Canadian senior men’s team will not play another truly meaningful game of international soccer for three years, six months and some days.

You can pretend that North America-specific tournaments such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup matter, but they don’t. In the bad old days, back when no one cared about this team, Canada was competitive in that tournament. They even won one 20 years ago. It didn’t make a ripple in the content pond.

Opinion: The World Cup matters, precisely because it doesn’t

Canada’s showing here in Qatar should assure it of a better quality of opponent in friendlies. Goodbye, Iran. Hello, England.

But while exciting and maybe even profitable, friendlies do not get the blood up. It’s elevated practice.

There will be all the usual grudge matches against the U.S.A. and Mexico, but those will matter even less than the friendlies. As the other co-hosts, those countries will automatically qualify for 2026 as well.

The ultimate end of international football – and especially non-European, non-South American football – is making the World Cup. If that’s off the table, what is there? How do you keep this team top of mind?

The good news is that the Canadian men’s program was lucky in its timing here.

Croatia's midfielder #11 Marcelo Brozovic (L) fights for the ball with Canada's forward #10 Junior Hoilett (R) during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match between Croatia and Canada at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on November 27, 2022.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

Lucky that it showed well against Belgium first. Lucky that it was embarrassed by Croatia second. And hopefully lucky in getting Morocco last. The order of this, including the ill-judged comments about effing Croatia, have increased its national profile.

How the average fan judges Canada here is still to be determined. If it goes out and beats Morocco, amazing. If it gets hammered, maybe not so great after all. Thursday’s game is hugely important from a reputational standpoint. You want to leave all your new customers happy.

The real trick will be maintaining some sense of urgency for four years, absent any stakes to make that urgency necessary. In order to be relevant, Canada will have to be interesting. On the field, it has no problem doing that. Off it? Not so much.

The next two days are an opportunity to practise its pitch. So far, so-so. If I was in charge of Canada, I’d have my players doing a full charm offensive. This is the last time in a while everyone will be paying close attention to anyone on this team not named Alphonso. It wouldn’t hurt to leverage his celebrity a bit.

If you want to know how it’s done, look at Johnston. He’s nowhere close to being the biggest star on this team, but he has pizzazz. This is a guy you want to know more about. Now you need 10 or 12 more of him.

Hockey players have the luxury of being boring, because they can go out and impress you on the ice every other night. Ditto baseball and basketball players.

No one is going to be watching Junior Hoilett playing for Reading or Tajon Buchanan at Club Brugge because your cable does not go up that high. By the standard of modern sport, these guys are about to become invisible.

A qualifying campaign would give them a year of runway at least. But that’s out, too.

So what you’ve got to sell are memories of this tournament. Canada has three more days to make some, and then it’s going to be out of the memory business for a while.