DOHA, Qatar — The 2022 FIFA World Cup has been dominated by upsets over the past two days of action.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia was the talk of the town after upsetting Argentina. Japan’s stunning 2-1 win over Germany was the hot topic on Wednesday afternoon.
But the day was ultimately dominated by the Canadian men’s national team and its emphatic performance, albeit in a 1-0 loss to Belgium.
Michy Batshuayi’s 44th-minute goal, a devastating blow to a team that ultimately dominated a match against the No. 2-ranked side in the FIFA rankings, seemed like a cruel joke.
But whether it was an English, American, Belgian or Spanish journalist, the subject was consistent: this Canadian squad not only belongs on the World Cup stage, it can hang with the elite.
“We came into our game with a couple of goals,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “The first goal was to play fearlessly and the second goal was to entertain. We had some other goals which were to create some firsts, but we weren’t quite up to those moments.”
Canada outshot Belgium 22-9, recorded 1.82 non-penalty expected goals (xG) to 0.76 for Belgium. To add insult to injury, Jonathan David (seven shots) had two fewer attempts than the entire Belgian squad on the night.
One of the 22 shots was an early penalty from Alphonso Davies, after VAR adjudged Yannick Carrasco to have handled a Tajon Buchanan shot in the box.
The decision raised a few eyebrows, seeing as how David is a designated penalty taker for Lille and Davies seldom shoots from the spot, but it’s been the protocol for Canada for months.
“The [players] sorted that out,” Herdman explained. “When you’ve got an $85-million player, and a player with that sort of confidence and swagger, pick up the ball and take it.”
Unfortunately for Davies and Canada, Thibaut Courtois dropped quickly and parried the shot away, keeping the match scoreless.
Batshuayi eventually capitalized on a ball over the top from Toby Alderweireld that has long troubled the Canadian defence.
But even in defeat, the team can still take solace in their performance, which left journalists from all corners of the globe raving about it in the aftermath.
“I said to the players we’re just straight on to the next task,” Herdman explained. “We are proud of what they did. They proved they can play here.”
The loss means Canada lies bottom of Group F behind Morocco, Croatia and Belgium. However, a win over Croatia on Sunday would launch Les Rouges right back into contention to advance to the round of 16.
The approach might be different, as Croatia’s midfield trio of Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic may not be as wasteful in open space as Belgium’s duo. Regardless, this Canadian side will have the Croatians on high alert.
The downside is Canada likely can’t lose another match if it wants to progress to the knockout stage. Normally, four points is enough to accomplish that task, which means anything less than a draw on Sunday is out of the question.
This isn’t the first time Herdman has been in this situation, either. When he was coaching the Canadian women’s team at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Canada lost to Japan in its opener. It eventually reached the latter stages of the tournament and won its first Olympic medal since 1936.
If there’s anything we’ve learned about this Canadian squad, it’s that they rarely commit the same mistakes twice in a row.
The 2-0 loss to Uruguay in September showed that the team needed to be more compact and disciplined with defensive transitions. That was solved in the friendly victory over Japan on Nov. 17.
Now, the lesson is to ensure that the foot doesn’t ease off the throat of an opponent when it is off its game.
“I thought that at times it was one pass too many around the box,” Herdman explained. “We talked about pulling the trigger, which was one of the learnings from Uruguay and they were brilliant against Japan at that.
“I’m not going to criticize them because when you outshoot Belgium 22-9 and it’s 27 crosses, we can’t complain too much. Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it’s not.”
Canada will be hoping that, this time, it’s the night on Sunday. The night that the first Canadian goal at a men’s World Cup is scored. The night that the first World Cup win is achieved.
But there’s no doubt that even in defeat, millions of Canadians were inspired and proud of what they witnessed.