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World Cup 2022: Canada confident ahead of opener vs. Belgium

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The stage is set for Canada’s long-awaited return to the FIFA World Cup.

We’re only hours away from the Canadians kicking off their adventure — 36 years in the making — in Qatar with a game against Belgium at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.

But Wednesday’s clash between Canada the world No. 2 won’t just be your run-of-the-mill, David vs Goliath type matchup.

Belgium’s golden generation, led by world-class talents like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, is approaching its twilight years. Despite sitting near the top of the FIFA rankings for the better part of the last decade, and even topping the list at some point, the country has nothing to show for its remarkable talent and development.

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Confidence is as high as it can be for Canada as they prepare to take on Belgium in their World Cup opener on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Confidence is as high as it can be for Canada as they prepare to take on Belgium in their World Cup opener on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

Enter Canada, whose impressive run through CONCACAF qualifying has many labelling their current crop of young stars as Canadian men’s soccer’s golden generation, led by superstar Alphonso Davies and future stars Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan and Stephen Eustaquio.

And while it may be the nation’s first appearance at the tournament since 1986, the players maintain they’re not in Qatar to simply make up the numbers.

“[We’re] beyond excited that we made it to the world’s biggest stage, but I just want to be clear, that we’re not here just to enjoy or participate,” veteran defender Steven Vitoria said. “We’re here to get a job done.”

While the challenges in a tricky Group F will come hard and fast, the players relish the opportunity to measure themselves against some of the world’s best talents.

“I think every player’s dream is to play against the best, and I think everyone is trying to level up to see where they are against the best players and the best teams,” said striker Ike Ugbo. “So I think it’s a good challenge, for sure.”

John Herdman’s squad does not seem short on confidence, either, despite facing down a European juggernaut midweek.

 

“We don’t hope any more, we believe,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio on Sunday. “We’re very confident in ourselves. We want to show that we are a football nation, that we can compete with the best in the world.”

Belgium enters Matchday 1 in less-than-ideal form, having lost 2-1 to Egypt in a pre-tournament warmup game last Friday. While the Red Devils expect their leader De Bruyne to be firing on all cylinders to start the tournament, the same cannot be said for some of their other regulars. Lukaku will miss the game after failing to recover from a nagging injury in time, while captain Hazard has barely featured for Spanish club Real Madrid this season, and has not been in his characteristic game-changing form for a long time.

Count out Belgium at your own risk, as this core of players have seen just about everything major international competitions could throw at them, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and reaching the quarter-finals of the last two UEFA European Championships. Manager Roberto Martinez will be anxious to finally claim the country’s first-ever international trophy after six years on the job, and with his stars still at the peak of their powers.

This is likely to be Belgium’s Last Dance, but will they get their fairytale ending?

“We know we’re coming up against a team that have been together for six, seven years; a team that has grown together, there’s not much they haven’t seen together,” Herdman said on Tuesday. “We’ve got to understand that there are moments in the game where they’ll take control, but we have an element of not fearing certain parts of what Belgium bring, because it’s all new to us.

“There will be a naivety that will work for us, but it can also work against us.”

Canada’s youthful legs will hope to put a damper on the Flemish parade, and their best shot at getting a draw – or an unlikely win – over their opponents will come if they take the game to them, using their speed and counter movements to stretch out the fifth-oldest squad in the tournament.

Belgium looks like it’s clinging onto the past, while Canada has everything to look forward to in the future. The boys in red and white believe they’re ready to take anybody on.

“On any given day, any team can beat anyone,” said David. “If it falls on the right day, of course we can win.”

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Canada claims first Davis Cup title with win over Australia in final

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The Davis Cup is billed as the “World Championship of Tennis”.

And on Sunday in Malagá, Spain, Canada defeated Australia and won it.

The squad that wasn’t even supposed to be in the finals at all lifted the iconic trophy for the first time since its initial participation all the way back in 1913.

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After being swept 4-0 by the Netherlands in a qualifying tie back in March — a tie top players Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov both decided to skip — Canada was given a pass (as the highest-ranked country eliminated) into to the final phases of the event when defending champion Russia was ejected from the tournament following the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Given a second life, the Canadians got through the elimination rounds in September in Valencia to reach the final eight this week in Malagá.

They defeated Germany in the quarterfinals Thursday, Italy in Saturday’s semifinal and then swept their two singles match against Australia on Sunday to clinch the title.

“What a way to end the year. It’s Davis Cup and we are the champions, world champions,” said Vasek Pospisil, the veteran of the group.

Captain Frank Dancevic, who took part in the Davis Cup for 14 years as a player, vowed the party would last all night — right through to their 6 a.m. flights on Monday.

Young substitutes Alexis Galarneau and Gabriel Diallo, who undoubtedly will have their part to play in years to come, came into the post-tournament press conference but could barely croak out a few words.

Their unwavering and very vocal support from the sidelines, along with a large contingent of Tennis Canada employees, coaches and support staff, made it a true team effort.

“We faced a lot of obstacles this week. We were down many matches, but we had our spirits high and kept fighting until the end, and we are here now with the trophy. It’s just an incredible feeling,” Dancevic said.

After the nervous moments earlier in the week, the final against Australia Sunday was almost anticlimactic.

Shapovalov, who was battered physically Saturday after a three-hour, 15-minute effort in defeat, came out a new man in the opening match.

He easily defeated a nervous-looking Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

And then, to clinch the tie — and the Cup — Auger-Aliassime was just as impressive in dispatching Australian No. 1 Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-2.

His performance during the week — notably coming in for Shapovalov in doubles against the Italian team on Saturday, to give Canada the opportunity to play in Sunday’s final — was impeccable.

“I saw the opening. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going for it.’ That’s it,” Auger-Aliassime said of match point. “After that, my legs just dropped on me. I was just … my leg just collapsed. To have Frank and everybody rush me, screaming, it was amazing.”

Fans watching in Canada on both official broadcasters — Sportsnet in English and TVA in French — were deprived of seeing the final moments of victory when the international feed went down, right at the most inopportune time. The commentators were left scrambling to try to explain. And only after the fact were they able to get some coverage of the trophy ceremonies by hooking into the American feed from Tennis Channel, which was not affected.

The Canadian men have excelled in team-format competition in recent years, beginning with their surprise run to the final of the first “new-format” Davis Cup in 2019.

They were defeated by the far more experienced Spanish team there.

But Auger-Aliassime was just 19 then; Shapovalov just 20.

Last January down in Australia, Canada won the ATP Cup, a new team competition with a similar format that featured even more of the world’s best players.

And on Sunday, it won the ultimate prize.

The Davis Cup has been around since 1900. And despite recent fundamental and much-derided changes to the format that have, in the opinion of many, turned the event into a pale shadow of its former iconic self, it remains the ultimate prize.

Auger-Aliassime didn’t commit to the preliminary final rounds in September until after a surprise early elimination at the U.S. Open a couple of weeks beforehand.

But he made the date and led Canada to qualification, without which Sunday would never have been possible.

He and Pospisil had to get it done without Shapovalov, who didn’t play.

Pospisil, 32 and a decade older than the team’s young stars, has always answered the call of his country. And on some occasions before their rise to prominence, he basically lifted the entire team on his shoulders and carried it to victory.

It’s no wonder he was by far the most emotional on Sunday.

“Over the years we have just slowly been growing closer and closer to getting the title. In 2013, we had a bit of a run and made the semis. Then we’ve been in world group for a while and made finals in 2019,” Pospisil said. “It’s hard to explain, but (at the) beginning of the week it kind of felt like we were going to win it. Just kind of this feeling that I had. Maybe some of the other guys had it, too.”

The return of Shapovalov to the fold for the final stages allowed Pospisil to focus on the doubles and gave Canada two top-25 singles players.

And Canada took full advantage of teams that were missing key elements.

Germany did not have Olympic gold medallist Alexander Zverev, who has been out with injury since June.

Italy was missing its top two singles players: Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini.

And notably, Nick Kyrgios was not in the lineup for Australia. He is that country’s highest-ranked player in both singles and doubles.

So Canada boasted one of the best one-two singles punches in the event, and the one with the most upside.

But potential is one thing; without the on-court performance to back it up, it’s only a theory.

On Sunday, Canada back it up to become world champions.

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Croatia coach sends Canada a stern message ahead of World Cup showdown

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Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic sent Canada a message Saturday at the World Cup. And he didn’t need the F-word to deliver it.

Dalic offered up a stern statement when asked about John Herdman’s emotional words after Canada’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

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Asked in a pitchside interview what he had said to his team in a post-game huddle, the Canada coach replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff— Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

While Herdman delivered the last line with a smile, Dalic clearly did not see the humour.

When a Canadian reporter at Saturday’s pre-game news conference asked Dalic for his team’s response to Herdman’s heat, the Croatia coach lectured his opposition ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Khlalifa International Stadium.

Dalic used the word “respect” 12 times in his answer.

“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone … We respect everyone, equally so,” he said through an interpreter. “We expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worthy of their respect. The Canadians must also have respect for us. This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We are the (2018 World Cup runners-up), not Brazil, Spain or other countries.”

“I shall not focus or comment on any other people’s comments,” he added. “We will be prepared (Sunday), we will be fit and we will demonstrate respect for Canada … and for everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view”

Croatian forward Ivan Perisic then backed up his coach, saying simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Sunday may prove otherwise but it seems, motivationally speaking, Canada has taken a knife to a gunfight.

Both the 41st-ranked Canadians and No. 12 Croatia need to get points out of the match. Belgium tops Group F with three points while Croatia and Morocco both have one point after their scoreless draw.

Canada needs to secure at least a point if it hopes to have any chance of reaching the knockout round. A loss Sunday and the Canadians can finish with no more than three points while Croatia ups its total to four. And no matter what happens in Sunday’s match between No. 2 Belgium and No. 22 Morocco, one of those teams will have at least four points.

With only two teams advancing out of the group, that would render Canada’s final group game next Thursday with Morocco meaningless in terms of tournament progression.

“At the end of the day, both teams really have to win this game,” said Herdman.

Croatian reporters didn’t bother engaging Zlatko on Herdman’s inflammatory words. They had already done so, with tabloids back home having a field day.

In contrast, three of the first four questions in Herdman’s availability were about his post-game hot take. Another came later.

The Canada coach, who had already addressed the issue on Thursday, tried to laugh off the reaction he had sparked in the Croatia camp.

He insisted he was on task “and loving the experience.” And he rejected the assertion that his words were just another motivational tool.

“We’ve been waiting 36 years to get here. I’ve used all my motivation tactics in the 20-odd games it took to get here,” he said in self-deprecating fashion.

But he maintained his words to his players in the post-game huddle after Belgium were simply “to remind them that there’s another task ahead.”

And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling it a “top top top top football team.”

“(A) hell of a test. Hell of a test for this team,” he added. “But we’re excited.”

Herdman called Sunday’s match a “defining moment for Canada in this World Cup. It’s one of those do-or-die games now that we have to perform in to stay at a World Cup.”

Dalic, meanwhile, called Canada “a tough team full of self-confidence.”

The two sides have never met before.

The Croatian roster features the likes of Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Perisic (Tottenham), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta). Only six of its 26-man roster play at home in Croatia, with four of those at Dinamo Zagreb.

Despite that talent, Croatia had its hands full with No. 22 Morocco in its tournament opener, playing to a scoreless draw in a game that saw each team put just two shots on target.

Croatia goes into Sunday’s match riding a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2) dating back to a 3-0 loss to Austria in June in UEFA Nations League play. Croatia avenged that defeat with a 3-1 decision over the Austrians in September.

Croatia has outscored the opposition 9-3 over that run, which includes a win and tie against No. 4 France.

“With all due respect to Croatia, they have a very very good team. It’s going to be tough for us,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio. “But it’s going to be tough for them as well.”

The Canadians, who blamed traffic for showing up 41 minutes late for their news conference before the Belgium game, arrived two minutes early Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

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Croatian coach feels disrespected by Canadian coach’s comment at FIFA World Cup

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DOHA, Qatar — Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said he felt disrespected by Canada head coach John Herdman for his comment in a group huddle following a loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

After the emotional 1-0 loss at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Herdman gathered his troops on the field and gave an impassioned speech.

When asked following the game what he told his team, Herdman admitted he told his group to ‘F’ Croatia, in reference to Canada’s second game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

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On the eve of the game Sunday (11 a.m. ET) at the Khalifa International Stadium, Croatian coach Zlatko Zlatko Dalic was again asked about the comment at the pre-match press conference here on Saturday.

“Canadians must have respect for us and this way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” Dalic said through an interpreter. “We are the runners up (2018 World Cup), it wasn’t Brazil or Spain or any other country. We are the runners up, we were second in the world, we are worth of respect the way we played, the way we behave, the way we respect all others, is the reason we are worthy or respect.

“I shall not focus or comment on other people’s comment. We will be prepared, be fit and we will demonstrate respect from Canada and from everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view.”

Croatia was a surprising World Cup finalist four years ago in Russia, beating England in the semifinal before losing to France. Along the way, Croatia also beat Argentina in the group stage.

Croatia was held to a scoreless draw in its opening match by Morocco on Wednesday. Croatia concluded the group stage against Belgium on Thursday.

“The Croatia team deserves respect from everyone; we have proven that by the way we’ve played with our conduct at the World Cup; since the very beginning we’ve deserved respect and dignity,” Dalic said. “We have two (World Cup) medals in the last 30 years and we’re up there with Germany and France and countries like that have such an achievement. We respect everyone equally so we expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worth of their respect.”

Croatia striker Ivan Perisic was also asked for his thoughts on Herdman’s comments.

“I second the head coach,” he said. “And I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

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