Here are three takeaways from Canada’s draw as they return to the world's biggest stage for the first time since 1986, having topped the Concacaf qualifying standings.
It’s not Brazil or France, so there isn’t a matchup of that magnitude for Canada to test themselves against the absolute elite of international soccer.
Instead, Belgium, Croatia and Morocco present a balanced and accessible group.
“Brilliant,” Canada coach John Herdman responded when asked about Canada’s group-stage opponents. “We wanted those type of games. I think you go into a World Cup, there are no easy matches and I think any team can beat any given team on a given date. That is just tournament football. I think Belgium, we know their quality with players like [Kevin] De Bruyne, [Romelu] Lukaku and what they have done on the international stage and then the Croatians, who four years ago were the finalists."
The Belgians boast world-class players like De Bruyne and Lukaku. Even Eden Hazard, who is lacking match fitness these days at Real Madrid, partnering up with Youri Yannick Carrasco on the left with Youri Tielemans controlling the midfield, is formidable.
Belgium’s defense is in limbo, though. Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld haven’t started since November, while Lukaku has been in and out of Roberto Martinez’s recent squads as well. If the backline still has these selection issues, that could behoove Canada.
Croatia might be a few years older since their run in 2018 but they're a gifted team. A midfield trio of Marcelo Brozovic, Luka Modric – even at 36 years old – and either Mario Pasalic or Mateo Kovacic can hang with any midfield combo in the world. Plus, center backs Duje Caleta-Car and Josko Gvardiol are rising stars who’ll likely make up a solid defense.
Finally, there is Morocco with Achraf Hakimi bombing up the right wing. Youssef En-Nesyri scored 18 goals in 38 league matches for Sevilla but has struggled for form with club and country this season.
"Everything that came out of that draw was just opportunity for this country, the players, personally, professionally, the team and the country,” Herdman said.
This will still be a tricky group to advance from, no question. But with Vancouver Whitecaps FC product Alphonso Davies back in the fold, Canada’s other attacking talent and a newfound mental resolve with an underdog label to boot, they will be a tough out in Group F.
It could have been worst-case scenario for Canada if they landed in Group E. That would have pitted them against Spain, Germany and Japan.
Luckily, it was the Costa Rica-New Zealand playoff winner who was drawn from Pot 4 and placed into Group E and not Canada.
Now Les Rouges stand a decent chance of registering an upset or two, even if Belgium were long ranked No. 1 by FIFA before Brazil passed them.
"With the group we have, I think guys wouldn't want it any other way," former Toronto FC defender Richie Laryea told OneSoccer. "You want to go head-to-head with the best in the world and [Belgium are] one of the best footballing countries in the world. It's going to be a class experience with us, but … we're going [with the intention] to win these games."
With the group now determined, the focus shifts to the pre-World Cup international windows as Canada’s preparation begins.
A new edition of the Concacaf Nations League begins in June, with the draw being held on Monday (April 4). That will provide a couple of competitive matches in the leadup to Qatar.
There is, however, a “small window” before the Nations League starts where Canada can squeeze in a home friendly. Whether any marquee side will want to travel to North America is another factor.
"That will probably line us up to head to Europe in the fall,” Herdman explained. “I think that's a critical step for this team. We've had to play Concacaf opponents for the last four years on this never-ending World Cup qualification scheme, 20-odd games, which has starved us of the chances to play against the De Bruyne's and help these players really understand what that level looks and feels like."
Determining opponents for friendlies won’t simply come down to sporting reasons, either. There is a bigger picture to evaluate in order to help Canadian soccer improve in all facets.
“I think there's commercial opportunities, there's things that we have to think about that are going to help the grassroots of our sport, the coaching education in our sport,” said Herdman. “This is what this opportunity is, it's more than just playing at a World Cup. It's everything that can raise the game in this country."
It’s an exciting time in Canadian soccer, and the fun truly begins now.