Herdman brings mind games to World Cup with uncertainty around key players

John Herdman, head coach of Canada's national team, leads a training session in Toronto on Wednesday, September 1, 2021, ahead of their World Cup qualifier against Honduras. (Chris Young/CP)

DOHA, Qatar — It might be the first World Cup appearance for the Canadian men’s national team in 36 years, but this isn’t John Herdman’s first rodeo.

Having won back-to-back Olympic bronze medals with the Canadian women, this will be the coach’s fourth World Cup. The English tactician was in charge of New Zealand at the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups before leading Canada in 2015.

No surprise, then, that Herdman is already whipping out a patented trick of his: throwing opponents off the scent via the media.

Alphonso Davies was supposed to be ready to play Belgium on Wednesday, but Herdman was quick to mix in some doubt about his status.

“He hasn’t hit that top speed yet and when you have hamstring injuries that’s always the key moment,” said Herdman on Saturday after training. “That’s when the hamstring is pushed to its limits.”

Stephen Eustaquio, who sat out the Japan victory last Thursday as a precaution, is supposedly “day by day” with a muscle-related issue that he suffered in training before the friendly and might not feature.

Now starting goalkeeper Milan Borjan is questionable with a minor abdominal issue.

For all we know, and for all Belgium coach Roberto Martinez is aware of, all three are doubts for Canada’s World Cup opener.

But spend enough time with Herdman and it’s just as likely to be a decoy.

All of Davies, Eustaquio and Borjan trained as normal to begin Sunday’s session. Canada’s No. 1 took a few extra minutes to warm up and stretch, though he was ready to go when the goalkeepers convened.

As training began, the 23 outfield players were engaging in quick stops and sprints. Eustaquio looked loose and explosive, while Davies – albeit in a less intense manner – seemed comfortable.

Of course, this could be moot in three days’ time when Canada takes the pitch to face Belgium.

Welcome to the power of Herdman’s mind games.

But Davies remains confident he’ll be ready, which is incredibly uplifting for the squad.

“We want all our players to be ready and feeling at their best,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio after Saturday’s session. “For one of our best players to say that he’s ready to go, this honestly is a confidence booster for us.

“We want him on the field. He’s a very important player for us.”


Belgium is the favourite for Wednesday’s game, not that it makes a difference for forward Jonathan David.

With his typical quiet confidence, David didn’t flinch when asked if it was possible that Canada could be the victors 

“Yeah of course,” David asserted. 

A player in David’s mould always plays with a selfless game. He presses from the front, recovers possession high up the pitch and constantly works for the team.

But a goal-scorer will always be a goal-scorer.

“I think everyone has this little thought that they want to score the first goal because it will be the first in history,” David continued. “Of course for me it would be an amazing feeling.”

David has strong odds of accomplishing the feat. He’s scored nine goals in 15 games for Lille this season and looked very lively in Canada’s win over Japan, even if he couldn’t find the back of the net.

As long as David remains active and involved like he did against Japan, he’ll be a leading candidate to become that first goal-scorer.


The injury bug has bit Belgium, with star striker Romelu Lukaku officially ruled out of Wednesday’s game with a hamstring injury of his own.

Lukaku hasn’t played for club or country since Oct. 29 and was questionable for the game. That didn’t stop Martinez from adding the Inter Milan striker to his World Cup squad, indicating that he must be fit enough to feature during the group stage.

Expect Michy Batshuayi to replace Lukaku in the lineup as the No. 9, flanked by Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard up front.

Lukaku has scored 68 goals in 102 caps for Belgium, including 11 in 12 matches in 2021.

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