UMM SALAL, Qatar – It’s difficult to find true motivation for a dead rubber match at the World Cup.
A humbling 4-1 defeat to Croatia on Matchday 2 ruled the Canadian men’s national team out of contention for the Round of 16, rendering Thursday’s Group F finale against Morocco a mere consolation clash (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo in US; TSN in Canada).
But this won’t be a typical “dead rubber” for Canada.
Les Rouges were the darlings through the first batch of games, having gone toe-to-toe with Belgium, and largely outplaying the No. 2-ranked team in the world for the vast majority of the 90 minutes. Yet they suffered a 1-0 defeat.
Optimism was high that, perhaps, Canada could go one step further against Croatia. That was not to be after Sunday’s match produced a 4-1 defeat to the 2018 World Cup runner-up.
Morocco are now Canada’s shot at redemption, not just to prove the Croatia setback was a one-off, but to show the wider Canadian public this team is evolving and improving before the 2026 World Cup arrives on their shores (co-hosted with USA and Mexico).
The Canadian poster boy of that tournament three-plus years from now, along with this current squad in Qatar, certainly believes the CanMNT are on the right path.
“We gained a lot of new supporters around the world,” said Alphonso Davies after training on Tuesday. “A lot of people felt that Canada wasn’t maybe a footballing country and hopefully after the tournament, we change that perception.”
Davies is used to the big stage by now. At 22, he’s already won multiple German Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, a UEFA Champions League and other honors in his young career that started in 2016 with Vancouver Whitecaps FC. For nearly seven years, he’s been the center of attention.
But it’s one thing to go through the motions at club level; it’s another to experience a World Cup and represent your country.
Davies has experienced a whirlwind week. It began with his penalty kick saved by Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois against Belgium, only to be avenged by scoring Canada’s first goal at a men’s World Cup – a powerful header inside 70 seconds vs. Croatia. What followed was a crushing defeat that ended any hope of advancing to the knockout stage.
But there have been valuable lessons learned that can apply. For starters, the lack of ruthlessness against Belgium or the “little details” – as head coach John Herdman labeled them – that ultimately led to Croatia’s comeback victory.
Regardless, it’s clear Canada are on the rise as a soccer nation – not just topping Concacaf’s qualification process. More players are joining top-tier leagues, with CF Montréal defender Alistair Johnston reportedly soon joining Scottish giants Celtic. With that comes Champions League matches, another Canadian participating in Europe’s premier club competition.
Herdman has constantly stated the need for his players to play at the absolute highest level, so they can thrive in settings like the World Cup. The recent migration patterns are promising.
“Each and every player on this team has the potential to play for some of the top teams in the world,” said Davies. “The quality we have on this team is tremendous. Definitely excited to see where every player will be in a couple years.”
Some players on the squad are on the wrong side of 30, especially Beşiktaş midfielder Atiba Hutchinson (39), Chaves center back Steven Vitoria (35) and Red Star Belgrade goalkeeper Milan Borjan (35). It’s possible they could stick around for the 2023 Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup, which are winnable tournaments for Canada. But the expanded 2026 World Cup might be out of the question.
Then there’s a younger generation coming through, spearheaded by Davies, CF Montréal midfielder Ismaël Koné (20), Lille striker Jonathan David (22), Club Brugge winger Tajon Buchanan (23) and more. Additional names will surely join them as MLS’s three Canadian clubs and the Canadian Premier League churn out talent.
Whatever the age, every player on this team has left an indelible mark for years to come.
“They’ve gone through many cycles trying to make it to the World Cup,” Davies said of the veterans, who helped snap a 36-year qualification skid. “I’m happy they were able to be with the team. They showed their leadership and experience.”
“We’re hoping that the dream of the Canadian kid starts to evolve,” explained midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who’s a free agent after starring for Toronto FC. “It's not a dream of making the World Cup. It's a dream of getting past the first round, getting to the semifinals, going to the finals and someday, winning the World Cup. Why not?”
Continued Osorio: “We’re hoping now this makes kids start believing that you can dream as big as you want and you can make those dreams come true.”
Even in defeat, achieving firsts like Davies’ goal or participating at a World Cup and receiving plaudits for performances go a long way.
But it’s not how you start a World Cup that often sticks with the average fan. That’s why it’s imperative Canada close out with a win over Morocco, which would be another first for the men's national team in the World Cup. The North African side still has a place in the Round of 16 up for grabs and managed to do what the Canadians couldn’t: beat Belgium.
Posting another solid performance, with something to show for it, should make a lasting impact on the sport in Canada.