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.
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.”
Croatia coach sends Canada a stern message ahead of World Cup showdown
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Canada coach Herdman jokes about Croatian tabloid
DOHA, Qatar –
Canada had just lost its first World Cup match in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a postgame huddle.
“I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and F Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, using a single letter to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
His words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approached.
Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a fullpage photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the (guts) as well?”
Commenting Saturday on Herdman’s words, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic used the word “respect” 13 times in a 90-second span.
“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” he said through a translator. “The way we play, the way we behave and the way we respect all others are the reasons we are worthy of respect.”
Sitting next to Dalic, winger Ivan Perisic said simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”
Speaking before Dalic, Herdman used humour in an attempt to defuse tensions.
“When you get a text from your wife telling me you need to start working out before you get home, yeah, you think you know something’s going on,” Herdman said, noting the newspaper image was of a trimmer midsection than his own.
“My wife’s coming after you guys,” he told a reporter from that Croatian paper, laughing. “She wishes she got that guy. I’ve got a bit more of a belly than that. I’ve been eating too much.”
On Thursday, Herdman had explained what his intent was.
“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” he said.
“It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.
Playing Croatia for the first time, Canada could be eliminated with another defeat.
Croatia, which lost the 2018 final to France, is the world’s 12th-ranked team and opened with a 0-0 draw against Morocco. Star Luka Modric, playing what is likely his last World Cup at age 37, put a first-half shot over the crossbar.
Canada has played just four World Cup games in its history and still is searching for its first goal. The Canadians outshot the Belgians 21-9 but gave up a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass. Alphonso Davies had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty kick was saved by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said. “I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”
Captain Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current roster alive when Canada went 0-3 at the 1986 World Cup, can make his 100th international appearance Sunday — Julian de Guzman is second with 89.
Midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the last World Cup’s runner-up.
“We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”
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