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Canada's coach John Herdman reacts during a qualifying soccer match against Mexico for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 in Mexico City on Oct. 7, 2021.The Associated Press

Qualifying for the World Cup is never easy. Ask Italy: One July evening you’re the champions of Europe, all swagger and spirit, beating England in London, and nine months later, you are hopelessly adrift, denied a place at the World Cup because you were beaten by a bunch of whippersnappers from North Macedonia.

For the Canadian men’s team, it’s always been worse. It’s the journey, literally the journey, that exhausts you, breaks your heart and spirit and, probably, persuades you that you never want to visit a Caribbean country again. At inconvenient intervals, the players leave their jobs and homes, fly to Canada and then on to Haiti or Dominica, where the field is awful, the locals scream abuse and the referee is a fan of soccer theatrics, especially those staged by the local players. You roll your eyes and start to resent everything about your own team, the set-up, the entire fruitless pursuit.

That’s what it was like, and nobody in Canada cared much anyway. Then two things happened. John Herdman left the Canadian women’s team to run the men’s group. Next, a core group of players emerged, easily persuadable that playing for Canada was a helluva thing. Where did many of them come from? The City of Brampton. Now you might say, “Brampton? That place just outside Toronto?” and the answer would be, “Yes, look it up.” Then you’ll find that across Canada’s national soccer teams, men’s and women’s, from elite youth to the senior teams, there are at least 40 players from, yeah, Brampton. Forty.

First, there’s Herdman. The Englishman has been blessed by a wandering spirit, something that unshackled him from the rigid thinking that can characterize the game over there. Now, I’ve met Herdman, for an off-the-record chat a few years ago, and he is what he seems. At first wary, then curious, genial, immensely articulate and admirably blunt. From what members of the men’s team say, he’s a great motivator. Lots of players say that about managers: the boss is so persuasive they’d walk through a wall for him. Herdman’s got to be better than that. Canada is not a normal team, constructed by normal channels. What persuades a club team in England or Belgium to rise up and get the job done, is not going to work with Canada’s national team.

The key, you have to figure, is Canada; the idea of the country, the freedom it means, the opportunities it offers, the welcome embrace it offers to everyone from everywhere. In an interview with Henry Winter of The Times a few months back, Herdman made a few revealing remarks. (One measure of this men’s team success is that The Times of London is paying close attention.) Herdman talked about persuading Canada-born players who have left the country behind, to sign up. “We’ve started to build a really solid database,” Herdman said about finding eligible players. He has a special presentation he gives about why a player should choose Canada. “I wouldn’t say it’s an easy sell, but people like Stephen Eustaquio was a Portugal under-21 player but he’s Canadian at heart,” Herdman said. “The bottom line for him was being part of something that you’ll never experience with Portugal, which is changing a country forever.”

In that same interview, Herdman mentioned a meaningful encounter in New Zealand where, as coach of the women’s team, he took them to two World Cups and the 2008 Olympics. One of his players, Kristy Hill, told Herdman about a Maori saying: “You have to touch someone’s heart before you can take them by the hand.” He said it influenced his management style. “I learned a lot about leadership from Kristy,” Herdman said. “She brought elements of the Maori culture into the environment.”

That approach is not common-or-garden motivational skills. And you need more than a tactical plan about 4-4-2 formations to induce players to travel from Turkey (where Sam Adekugbe, Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson play), via multiple flights and enduring wearying jet lag, to play for Canada. Hutchinson, at 39, is someone you’d expect to have put all that behind him.

It must be about heart and the idea of Canada, and that’s where Brampton comes in. The sprawling suburb to the northwest of Toronto is made up of immigrants from all over the world. In politics, Brampton and the entire “905 region” play an outsize role. In soccer it is outsize, too. The area is home to countless sports clubs and teams. Look at the online sports schedules for the Brampton area and it seems they play sports, indoor and outdoor, 24/7 all year long. Of the current men’s team, Hutchinson, Tajon Buchanan, Jonathan Osorio, Liam Millar, Junior Hoilett and Doneil Henry are listed as guys who began playing in Brampton. On the women’s team, Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence and recent call-up Sura Yekka started in Brampton.

In a larger context you could say Brampton and cities like it have changed Canada. In a way that no team in the NHL could possibly understand, Brampton is us, and we are Brampton. Those players don’t need much persuasion to represent Canada; it’s in their bones and their sense of belonging. They are transforming Canada as people and now transforming Canada into a men’s soccer power. Herdman looks at his lineup and sees six guys from Brampton and he knows, he just knows, what it means in terms of hearts and minds. The alchemy is there, thanks to him and them.