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Canada's head coach John Herdman gestures at the end of a World Cup Group F soccer match against Belgium, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 23.Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press

On Wednesday night, Canadian coach John Herdman told a TV interviewer his team was “going to go and eff Croatia” in their next game. It was played as a bit of a joke.

Herdman repeated it in his news conference. Even the second time, a few people laughed.

By Thursday, it wasn’t looking quite so funny. This is what happens when you don’t leave North America all that often. You forget that jokes don’t translate well around the world, and that trying to be funny can get you in trouble.

A question about the comment was put to Croatia’s coach, Zlatko Dalic, that morning.

Dalic shrugged as if to say, “Well, what can you say about some people?” He’d just finished sharing some complimentary things about Canada and how it had performed against Belgium. Now this.

“Everybody has their own communication style,” Dalic said, as translated by the team’s media officer. “It’s his right to say it. I’m not sure how nice it is to say something like that.”

Or smart.

Though Dalic took it in his stride, the Croatian media did not. Herdman’s profane shot out of nowhere dominated the morning papers.

“Thank You for the Motivational Fuel,” read one banner in the Zagreb-based Vecernji List. The sub-headline defined Herdman’s characteristics as “tactical competence and social incompetence.” And those were the papers keeping it above the belt. Some didn’t.

Canada’s defeat by No. 2-ranked Belgium was no soft surrender. The better team lost

The disconnect between things that should and should not be said on this sort of stage was such that one Croatian TV journalist, Sasa Lugonjic, showed up at Canada’s practice. He wanted to make sure Herdman hadn’t been misquoted. (If he had, it was by a camera.)

“Did you really say after last night’s match that you were going to f-word Croatia?” Lugonjic asked Herdman.

“Yeah, I did,” Herdman said. “It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team … but in that moment you’ve taken those men to the next place and we’re here to be fearless.”

Later: “Yeah, I mean no disrespect to the Croatian team or the Croatian people, but at the end of the day it’s a mindset that Canada’s going to have to have.”

Those apologies sure have a lot of “but”s in them.

Have we really reached the point where refusing to be “massively respectful” to strangers is okay as long as Canada wins in the end? I thought that was more America’s approach to things than ours. I guess this is considered progress?

Like Dalic, Lugonjic wasn’t offended, so much as surprised. In most parts of the world, picking fights with people you’ve never met is a poor survival technique. It’s only in the fat lands to the west where people feel safe tossing insults and apologizing later.

“It’s just not usual for our mindset to talk this way,” Lugonjic said. “I understand Herdman. He gave me nice answer. But I think it would be much more smart if he told that to them in the locker room.”

Maybe what Canada needs is a Croatian on the PR staff.

Everything about Canada at this tournament seems inexperienced, verging on callow. Big teams swagger in here. Canada has arrived in a protective crouch. Everything about its off-field approach speaks to caution.

On the field, the players are equally full of vigour and mistakes. It’s intoxicating to watch, but isn’t always the best way to produce results.

The players have a great excuse – they are inexperienced and callow. They don’t know what’s what. Some have been overcome by the situation. Hence, taking a million shots and failing to score.

That’s what all the statistics about win likelihoods in the Belgium game can’t capture. One team had been there before, and one hadn’t. Experience was the difference.

But what’s Herdman’s excuse? He’s in his 40s. He’s spent time on the world’s biggest stages. He’s given a million postgame pep talks.

Croatia sleepwalked through its first game against Morocco. Let me tell you – it is awake now. If the players are inclined to play this cool, Croatia’s media aren’t. There’s a lot of air time to fill between now and Sunday. While the World Cup isn’t the only story going in Canada, it is in Croatia.

By kickoff on Sunday, half of that country is going to expect Herdman to show up on the field with horns and cloven hooves.

No amount of praise after the fact (Herdman tried that route, too) will make it better. On the other hand, you can’t climb down either. Now you’re stuck. This is how Herdman ended up taking the incoherent “sorry, but …” approach to things.

So this thing will spiral. Canada will try to pretend it never happened, and in Croatia they will hear about nothing but.

In the end, it may never matter. The Croatian players have been doing this too well for too long against the biggest teams in the world. They get worked up over Barcelona or Pep Guardiola, not Canada and John Herdman.

If they win, they’ll win on their merits.

But if Croatia wins big, you know how it looks. It looks like Herdman was giving his opponents a pep talk instead of his own team. Then Canada’s out and the autopsy begins. Where did things go wrong? How can those mistakes be fixed?

In that scenario, problem No. 1 is pretty simple. When faced with a superior opponent in a must-win fight, concentrate less on theatrics and more on the job. Also, try to be nicer. People in this country worked a long time to get their global reputation as thoughtful, respectful types. I’m not sure we want to cash it all in at once just so that we have a slightly better shot at winning a goofy soccer game.

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