The future belongs to Canada, a football country in the making

John Herdman, the English national coach of Canada, addresses his selection after the defeat (1-0) against Belgium. Since he took office, the bar in Canada has been set a lot higher than before.Image AFP

The uninhibited Canadians, present at a World Cup for the first time in 36 years, will have a new chance against Croatia on Sunday to show their considerable football talent to the world. Even though the first group match against Belgium ended in a narrow defeat (0-1), the team presented itself as an energetic and colorful collective that would not be out of place on the global football stage.

In Canada they were already convinced of this. “In terms of quality and talent, this is the best team we’ve ever had,” said Alex Ho, one of the supporters who traveled to Qatar. Ho is a member of The Voyageurs, a fanatical group of football fans who have been following the men’s and women’s national teams since the 1990s.

Unprecedented is the current wealth for Ho and his kindred spirits. After decades without success, Canada qualified for the World Cup with force majeure. In the qualifying pool, the team beat the US and Mexico, among others, the countries with which Canada will organize the World Cup in 2026.

Iconic became the image of defender Sam Adekugbe who, after the 2-1 against the Mexicans in the freezing cold of Edmonton, dived into a mountain of snow out of joy. ‘We can’was the battle cry during the remarkable series in which the team scored the most goals and conceded the fewest.

Chanceless in 1986

Canada was last at a World Cup in 1986. Supporter Ho was a young teenager. He remembers how the football dwarf had no chance against superpowers Soviet Union, France and Hungary. Canada failed to score a goal. “Everything is different now,” he says enthusiastically. “The players are with much bigger clubs.” With some caution he dares to speak of a golden generation.

Take Alphonso Davies (22), who is making waves at Bayern Munich. Or Jonathan David (22), already champion of France at Lille. At Club Brugge youngster Tajon Buchanan is waiting for offers from bigger clubs.

Canadian Tajon Buchanan is stopped by Timothy Castagne (left) and Toby Alderweireld.  Buchanan, who still plays at Club Brugge, would have the choice of the top clubs.  Image AP

Canadian Tajon Buchanan is stopped by Timothy Castagne (left) and Toby Alderweireld. Buchanan, who still plays at Club Brugge, would have the choice of the top clubs.Image AP

Veteran Atiba Hutchinson, ex-PSV, is out of place in the young, fearless team at 39 years old. In Qatar, the Besiktas midfielder hopes to play his hundredth international match. “Especially with Davies and David, we have talent that we haven’t had before in this country,” said Oliver Platt, a commentator for Canadian sports channel OneSoccer.

The two are exponents of a changing demographic in the country with more than 38 million inhabitants. According to Platt, the diversity partly explains the success of the team. ‘Many boys have parents from countries with a football culture. They took them to Canada.’

No less than seven of the 26 players from the selection were born in another country. It is in line with the current population of Canada, where almost a quarter of the population was born outside the country’s borders. Snow diver Adekugbe, of Nigerian background, was born in England. Jonathan David in New York. The striker grew up partly in Haiti, the country of his parents. Goalkeeper Milan Borjan is from Croatia.

Champions League experience

The cradle of Davies, son of Liberian parents, was in a refugee camp in Ghana. At the age of 5 he emigrated to Canada. With Vancouver Whitecaps from the North American MLS league, Davies had his breakthrough as a teenager. Now he is a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.

Marcel de Jong (36) remembers the young Davies. The Dutch Canadian, 56-time international for Les Rouges, played at Whitecaps as a left back in the back of the super talent. ‘You could already see that he was special,’ says De Jong, owner of a football school in Vancouver. ‘He was lightning fast and uninhibited. Not afraid of anything. At every training he showed everyone his heels.’

De Jong also briefly played together with Davies in the national team. The former player from Roda JC, Helmond Sport and the Dutch Juniors retired in 2018. In the final phase of his career, he noticed that a breath of fresh air had started to blow. ‘The level of the team started to rise considerably’, says the born Canadian, who grew up in the Netherlands. ‘A large part of the players from then are now playing at the World Cup.’

Defender Sam Adekugbe dives into the snow after Canada defeated Mexico 2-1 in Edmonton in World Cup qualifiers.  Image .

Defender Sam Adekugbe dives into the snow after Canada defeated Mexico 2-1 in Edmonton in World Cup qualifiers.Image .

De Jong was there when national coach John Herdman (47) took charge of the team in 2018. The Englishman has been appointed with a view to the 2026 World Cup in Canada, the US and Mexico. He immediately increased the ambitions. “From the start he said that placement for Qatar was the objective,” says De Jong. “Slowly but surely everyone started to believe in that.”

The perfect storm

In his home country, Herdman, who grew up near Newcastle, did not get a job, much to his frustration. Former football players were given priority. The sports scientist moved to New Zealand and later became a coach for the Canadian women. He led them to two bronze Olympic medals since 2011.

Herdman stands out as a motivator, says commentator Platt. He calls the fact that he was linked to the current generation of football players the ‘perfect storm’. “He has a clear vision and can bring players together. You almost feel that the players are not playing football for themselves, but for the perception of football in the country. They often use the word brotherhood. It seems as if they now prefer to play for their country rather than for their club. Previously it was the other way around.’

De Jong sees the effects of success at his football school. “I see more and more kids on the field wearing Canadian football team jerseys,” he says. “That was unheard of a few years ago.”

According to De Jong, football in Canada can become the country’s biggest sport. More than a million inhabitants practice the sport. Supporter Ho also notices an advance. ‘Friends and colleagues who had nothing to do with football now suddenly know a lot of players. They all know there is a World Cup going on.’

Nevertheless, ice hockey is the national sport in Canada, Ho knows. “That’s king and it will stay that way,” he says. “But we have also become a football country. Yes, of course. I think the foundation has now been laid. Previously, Canada came second to many football fans in the country. They were for Brazil, or Italy. That is now changing. Sometimes you need a bit of success to generate enthusiasm.’

Of foreign origin

Seven Canadian players were not born in the country they represent at the World Cup. That is much more common. At least 130 of the 831 World Cup participants opted for a country team at a later age: the phenomenon occurs in 28 of the 32 participating countries. Morocco leads the ranking with fourteen players who were born elsewhere: mainly in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Tunisia and Senegal follow with twelve players. Qatar and Wales have ten players of foreign birth: nine out of ten Welsh players are from England. The Netherlands has a player who was born abroad: Luuk de Jong was born in Aigle, Switzerland.

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