Long before anyone was entertaining thoughts of getting a result against the No. 2 team on the planet in a World Cup finals opener, or shaking their heads as players squabbled with Canada Soccer over divvying up the FIFA spoils, a 73rd-ranked Canada squad set out on the long road to Qatar.
Because of the pandemic and missed international windows, the format for CONCACAF qualifying was altered just before it started. So following a round-robin in which Canada outscored the opposition 27-1, John Herdman’s team beat Haiti in a two-legged elimination to make the final round of qualification, a stage Canada hadn’t reached since the 1998 World Cup cycle.
The difference was that this year’s final round would be an octagonal, eight-team affair, rather than the usual six-team hexagonal, meaning 14 total games to decide who punched their ticket to the World Cup, with the top three qualifying automatically, and the fourth-placed finisher advancing to a one-game playoff against another country.
An unspectacular start
In its first home game in almost two years, Canada laboured to a 1-1 come-from-behind draw with Honduras in September, 2021, setting up a trip to Nashville for the first real heavyweight clash of the qualifying campaign. Once again, Herdman’s team was forced to play from behind, but Alphonso Davies found his way behind the U.S. back line to set up Cyle Larin for the equalizer in an eventual 1-1 draw. A comfortable 3-0 home win over El Salvador in Toronto ensured that Canada stayed in touch with the early leaders in the Octagonal, and built some momentum for the October window.
Changing the narrative
If ever there was a chance for the team to show that this was a different Canada, both in skill set and mentality, it was an October, 2021, trip to the famed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Canada had never won on the pitch where Pele and Diego Maradona had both claimed World Cup final glory, and had only once previously even managed to force a draw against Mexico there. Midfielder Jonathan Osorio had confidently predicted that Canada was “not scared of anybody” in the buildup to the game, and after falling behind once again, the Toronto FC midfielder backed up his words, becoming the first Canadian to score at the stadium in 41 years to help his team grab another draw. Herdman’s squad built on that three days later in Kingston, Jamaica, by earning another point in a goalless encounter with Jamaica – its first point there in nearly 20 years.
Despite its creditable road points, Canada was still looking up at Mexico and the United States in the standings entering its Matchday 6 encounter with Panama at Toronto’s BMO Field. Worse, its habit of conceding the first goal had shown no signs of disappearing, with the team trailing once again following a fifth-minute Panamanian goal. And though the home team had drawn level with an own goal, with less than half an hour to play the 27,000 in attendance were starting to worry that Canada’s inability to convert chances was going to result in a fifth draw in six games.
But with a top-flight talent such as Davies on the pitch, there was always the chance for a game to break open. True to his reputation, that’s exactly what happened, with the Bayern Munich fullback turning on the afterburners in chasing down what looked like a lost cause, catching a Panamanian defender napping on the ball, and duly taking it off him en route to the opposition penalty area. Once there, he actually started moving away from goal, before spinning like a pirouette to dispatch a shot past a flat-footed Luis Mejia in the Panama goal, turning the game, the qualifying campaign and perhaps the reputation of Canadian men’s soccer, in a new, more positive direction.
When Herdman’s squad regrouped for November’s pivotal games against Costa Rica and Mexico, Canada Soccer opted for a change of scenery, if not temperature, by moving the two home games to the frozen tundra of Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. While the media had fun with the snowy backdrop of the ‘Iceteca,’ the fair-weather opposition most certainly did not. Canada warmed up for the visit of Mexico with a nervy 1-0 win over Costa Rica, before welcoming a Mexican team fresh off a 2-0 loss to the United States in Cincinnati. Even with game-time temperatures hovering around -9 C, Canada jumped all over the CONCACAF giants, getting goals either side of halftime from Larin, with the second proceeding a moment of pure Canadiana as Sam Adekugbe memorably dove into a pitchside snow bank to celebrate.
Down but far from out, Mexico woke up from its early game hibernation in the second half, pulling one back in the 90th minute and calling on Milan Borjan to make a goal-line clearance deep in stoppage time to preserve Canada’s first World Cup qualifying victory over Mexico since 1976. Just as important, the victory pushed Canada atop the Octagonal standings for the first time, with a massive seven-point margin between it and fifth-placed Costa Rica.
A COVID curveball
Though no one knew it at the time, November’s win over Mexico would be Davies’s final World Cup qualifying action. The talismanic wingback was diagnosed with an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis after contracting COVID-19 during the Bundesliga’s winter break over Christmas. So when the Canadian men reassembled for a crucial three-game window in late January of 2022, with Davies reduced to the role of chief cheerleader via his Twitch account, the squad knew it would have to win without its best player. But after three successive 2-0 wins, including a memorable victory over the United States in Hamilton in which Adekugbe iced the victory on another wintry Canadian day with a mazy run and finish in the 95th minute, Canada sat one point away from qualifying for the first time since 1985.
A celebration 37 years in the making
Canada spurned the first opportunity to book its World Cup spot, as Mark-Anthony Kaye was sent off inside 34 minutes and the team fell 1-0 in Costa Rica on March 24 to suffer its first defeat in 18 qualifying games. Beaten but unbowed, and reflecting the shift in confidence that he had instilled in his team, Herdman was undeterred and put a positive spin on the setback. “We’ll take care of business this weekend,” he said. “And if it doesn’t get taken care of there, we’ll take care of it in Panama. We’ll get to Qatar.”
Taking their head coach’s words to heart, a sold-out crowd of almost 30,000 crammed into BMO Field on March 27, an expectant air hovering over the stadium with Canada still needing just a draw to rewrite history. The first 10 minutes were a nervy affair, but from the moment Larin put Canada in front 13 minutes in – his CONCACAF-leading 13th goal of the qualifying campaign – the World Cup qualification party started in earnest. “Is that the goal that sends Canada to Qatar?” OneSoccer’s play-by-play commentator, Gareth Wheeler, asked breathlessly as Larin’s right-footed shot hit the back of the net. Buoyed by a sea of red-and-white that pulsed throughout the stadium, the team went about reducing any margin for error, scoring three more times before the final whistle.
For the first time since 1985, Canada had qualified for the FIFA men’s World Cup, and not even a loss away to Panama in the 14th and final match of the Octagonal could take the sheen off the achievement.