Canada’s Alistair Johnston can’t wait to test himself against the best of the best in Qatar

Just hours away from Canada's first match in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Faizal Khamisa looks back at the road taken to get to Qatar, the alumni who left their mark through the highs and lows, and what it means for the future of soccer in Canada.

When fans and pundits are asked who Canada’s most important player will be at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Alphonso Davies’ name is more often than not offered up as an answer.

At age 22, the Edmonton native is already a global superstar thanks to his exploits at German club Bayern Munich, where he has established himself as one of the best left fullbacks in the world and became the first member of the Canadian men’s team to win the UEFA Champions League. 

But spare a thought for the underappreciated Alistair Johnston, one of only two players to have played in all 14 of Canada’s matches in the final round of Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying campaign. 

“[Johnston] has a very high football IQ,” says former Canadian international Patrice Bernier. “He’s very smart on the ball; a very intelligent player. He’s never phased, always calm. He’s the type of player that coaches love because he’s versatile. You could put him in any position on the field and he’d be able to pull it off.  

“He flies under the radar because he’s not flashy. You don’t watch him and say, ‘Wow, he’s fast,’ or say, ‘Wow, he’s technically gifted.’ No. He’s on the spot, he’s consistent, he never puts a foot wrong. That’s what you notice about him.” 

Johnston, a 24-year-old born in Vancouver, was Canada’s “Mr. Reliable” as the team traversed North and Central America during the qualifiers, from Hamilton to San Pedro Sula and all points between, logging more starts (11) and more minutes (1,020) than anybody except forward Jonathan David. Whether it was in the brutal cold of Commonwealth Stadium against powerhouse Costa Rica or inside the venerable soccer cathedral that is Estadio Azteca against mighty Mexico, the CF Montreal defender was a constant presence for the men’s team as it punched its ticket for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. 

Last week, Johnston started in a 2-1 win over Japan in Canada’s final warmup match before the World Cup, setting a new team record by making his 28th consecutive appearance to move past Canada Soccer Hall of Famer Bruce Wilson. Johnston’s star is on the rise, and the general belief in the Canadian soccer community is that he will be the country’s next great export to one of Europe’s big clubs — possibly as soon as the tournament in Qatar ends next month. 

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But before that, there is the small matter of playing against Belgium on Wednesday in Canada’s opening game of the World Cup. While Canada is back at the big dance after a 36-year absence, competing on this stage is second nature to the Belgians, who have made 13 previous appearances and twice reached the semifinals, including four years ago in Russia. 

Currently No. 2 in the FIFA world rankings, Belgium is teeming with attacking players of the highest calibre who feature for some of the biggest clubs in Europe and who routinely compete in the UEFA Champions League, most notably Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Then on Sunday, No. 41 Canada will face 12th-ranked Croatia, led by the incomparable Luka Modric, rightly considered one of the best midfielders in the world and who guided his country to the 2018 World Cup final. The Dec. 1 match vs. Morocco, No. 22 in the world, won’t be a stroll in the park, either.

For a defender, going up against the best nations in Concacaf is one thing. It’s an entirely different matter when you have to try to stop the likes of Belgium and Croatia. Yet, for Johnston, who only debuted for Canada in 2021 and turned pro the year before, the daunting task of testing his defensive wits against some of the sport’s biggest stars is something to be embraced.  

“You see what these top guys are doing week in and week out in the Champions League — you see what De Bruyne or Modric does — and it’s honestly mindboggling how they manipulate the ball. As a defender, this is a great challenge and it’s something we cherish,” Johnston says. “We want to test ourselves against the best forwards, the best midfielders in the world. We want to show that Canadians belong, that there’s some good players here, and that we’re not just a hockey country. We’ve got some stereotypes to break.” 

Having just completed his third MLS season, Johnston carries himself with a quiet confidence and plays with a sense of fearlessness that is rare in a player so inexperienced. It’s served him well when he’s gone up against more seasoned forwards at the club level and on the international stage. 

That sense of fearlessness is something he picked up out of necessity while growing up, first in Montreal and later in Aurora, Ont. Everything turned into a competition between Johnston and his two brothers. 

“I was the middle child, so you kind of have to be fearless in your attitude, and you’re constantly fighting for everything. We’re all athletes, all two years apart, so it was a very competitive environment growing up in every single thing we did. That made me fearless. I’ve always had that attitude of, ‘I don’t really care who you are. Let’s go. Let’s tangle,’” Johnston says. 

“I played hockey competitively in the winter and then soccer in the summer, and I was always known as a guy who loved to bodycheck and to hit guys. I’ve always loved the feeling of just laying someone out, as crazy as that sounds, and I just brought that attitude into soccer. I love a good tackle to this day. Nothing gets me more excited [than] if I get clattered into by an opponent or I clatter into him and it’s clean and the guy starts pushing me back. That’s something I just love.” 

Johnston’s pathway to playing at the World Cup is remarkable when you consider that just over three years ago he was playing for Vaughan Azzurri in League 1 Ontario. In January 2020, he was picked 11th overall by Nashville SC at the MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest University and quickly became one of the league’s best right-sided players, whether he was deployed as a fullback or wingback. His stock rose even higher following last year’s trade to CF Montreal, where he helped the team finish third in the overall MLS standings while also playing a key role in Canada’s World Cup qualifying campaign. 

In the span of three years, he’s gone from cutting his teeth in NCAA soccer and turning out for a semi-pro team in north Toronto to playing at the biggest sports events on the planet. His head is still spinning, and he’s barely had time to reflect on the warp-speed journey he’s taken. 

“It’s honestly been such a hectic past 24 months that there hasn’t been any time to even really sit back and think about it,” Johnston says. “It’s likely going to have to wait until after the World Cup for me to think about it and reflect on the fact I will have checked off a pretty big box that most players don’t get a chance to tick off.” 

For the past several days head coach John Herdman has put his team through its paces in training sessions ahead of Wednesday’s game vs. Belgium, and if history is any indication, Johnston will be in the starting 11, most likely as part of a back three alongside Steven Vitória and CF Montreal teammate Kamal Miller. 

Soon after both teams walk through the tunnel and onto the pitch at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Johnston will realize a childhood dream. But even beyond getting his first touch of the ball during a World Cup game, there’s one moment he’s pictured in his head more than any other: 

“Hearing ‘O Canada,’ honestly, that’s the one moment I’ve thought about because singing our national anthem is pretty special to us. It’s something John [Herdman] has really emphasized. He wants us to be loud and proud when we sing it. And I want the other team to think to themselves, ‘Okay, this isn’t the same old Canada we’ve seen before.’ This is a different team. This is a team that plays for pride in their country. That’s going to be the most emotional moment for me. When we’re all out there, I’ll be thinking, ‘Wow, we’re really doing this on the world stage and representing Canada at the biggest stage in sports. How amazing is this?’ That’s the one moment I’m all super excited for,” Johnston says. 

“It’s going to be special. All Canadians should definitely tune in early to the game to catch the national anthem. You won’t want to miss that. But at the same time, it’s going to be difficult because a minute later the ball will be in play and it’s me against Kevin De Bruyne. It’s going to be about leaving those emotions on the sidelines.”

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