Kamal Miller

AL RAYYAN, Qatar – The stakes for Canada are lower than most nations entering their third and final group-stage match.

You’d never guess by the team’s demeanor about 24 hours before kickoff against Morocco at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo in US; TSN in Canada).

“It’s a real opportunity for our players and for our country to keep stepping forward,” said Canada head coach John Herdman in his pre-match press conference. “We'll stay committed to our identity and we'll go into this match with an opportunity to make some more history.”

The first Canadian goal at a men’s World Cup, fittingly scored by their biggest star Alphonso Davies, sent shockwaves across the country. Friends and family sent endless texts to the players, giving them a small dose of what Canada felt in those opening minutes of the game.

Even following the 4-1 loss Sunday to Croatia, the team regrouped on Tuesday to watch Davies’ goal together, to remind each other why they pushed so hard to qualify for this World Cup. They’d snapped a 36-year drought by topping Concacaf, after all.

“They got to see what we really came here for, which was to give Canada that moment and to be proud of moments like that because there’s more to come,” Herdman explained.

“We talked about being the first to do a lot of things in this tournament and that was a big one,” said veteran defender Steven Vitoria. “To see how everybody's flooded with that genuine happiness, knowing what it meant to our group, to our country, it's special.”

First win?

Now it’s time for another historic moment: the first result and, if they dare, the first win.

It will be a tricky test, though. Morocco have a chance to achieve their own history. The North Africans haven’t qualified for the knockout stage at a World Cup since 1986, and with four points from two games, there’s a glorious opportunity to end that drought in Group F’s finale. They’re currently second, and a draw may send them through to the Round of 16.

“With every respect that I have for Canada, we are here to win,” said Morocco head coach Walid Regragui via an interpreter. “We're concentrating on the game and we don't really care what the Canadian or other players are doing.”

Canada likely deserved more points than they’ve earned thus far, especially in the opening 1-0 defeat to Belgium. They’ve finished both games empty-handed, yet never deviated from their philosophy.

That approach has won over many Canadians, casual and diehard alike. At Mexico 1986, the defensive-minded tactics were done out of necessity after months of preparation. Now, Canada are playing on the front foot without any fear. It’s a new era, a new identity.

“It could have been very easy to park the bus in front of our net to wait and see what was gonna happen,” said Vitoria. “We went after what we wanted [against Belgium and Croatia] and if you asked me three years ago if I'd had this opportunity to be here, I would have signed anywhere.”

Herdman to stay?

The optimism before and after the opener versus Belgium was contagious. Losing to Croatia and being ruled out of the Round of 16 clearly stung, especially after that promising start in Qatar.

But that’s all part of the development of Canadian soccer. Qualifying for a men’s World Cup for the first time in 36 years has been achieved. Canada competed against some of the best nations.

The goal now is to heed these lessons and build on them for the expanded 2026 World Cup at home, where Herdman plans to still coach the team in three-and-a-half years. The Englishman joined in January 2018 after leading the Canadian women's team.

“Absolutely,” Herdman answered when asked if he’d still be the coach in 2026. “I've been pioneering for a long period of time and you will not find anyone as passionate as I am about this program, or about these players or about the staff. You will not find anyone as passionate, who wants to take the country to that next level."

For now, the focus is on a crucial match against Morocco, where Canada can leave a lasting impression on the country and the tournament with a win. The players seem all systems go, aside from dynamic midfielder Stephen Eustaquio still being questionable (injury).

“We have an opportunity here to send our message to our people back in Canada and to those younger generations,” said Vitoria. “I know that this group has done a fantastic job in doing that.”