AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Soccer is a simple game.
Two teams with 11 players each kick the ball around for 90 minutes and stoppage time. Often one team wins. Occasionally, they will draw.
But when one side wins, it’s usually separated by ruthlessness in front of goal. It’s a simple, yet true statement.
Canada heavily outshot Belgium Wednesday at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and at times put the world’s No. 2-ranked team under the cosh. The expected goals were heavily in the Canadians’ favor. Tactically, John Herdman’s squad was nearly flawless.
But it’s Belgium who walked out of their 2022 FIFA World Cup opener as the 1-0 victors and on top of Group F. Canada, meanwhile, are rooted to the bottom after Morocco and Croatia’s 0-0 draw earlier in the day.
This team has learned plenty of valuable lessons over the past 20 months, from learning to adjust mentally and tactically in big games to overcoming adversity. It’s how they topped Concacaf, after all.
The next lesson is to put world-class opponents to the sword when they aren’t quite on their game.
“Just having that ruthlessness,” Herdman said when asked about the subject in his post-match press conference. “I thought that, at times, it was one pass too many around the box. We talked about pulling the trigger, which was one of the learnings from Uruguay [in September], and they were brilliant against Japan.”
Red Devils struggle for response
Belgium were frazzled in the early going. Canada’s relentless pressing and quick play led to 22 shots on the night. Eighteen of those were in the box. Jonathan David (7) nearly outshot the entire Belgian squad (9).
“We came into that game with a couple of goals,” Herdman explained. “The first goal was to play fearlessly, and the other goal was to entertain.
“I'm not going to criticize [the players] because when you outshoot Belgium 22-9 on the night, and it’s 27 crosses, I can’t complain too much,” the coach continued. “Sometimes it’s your night; sometimes it’s not your night.”
The Davies decision
Within 10 minutes, Canada’s rapid movement had led to a penalty after Video Review adjudged Yannick Carrasco to have handled the ball off Tajon Buchanan’s shot.
Then, in a decision that will likely be debated across Canada for years to come, Alphonso Davies stepped up to take the penalty and possibly score the men’s national team’s first-ever World Cup goal.
Ultimately, Davies’ shot was hit too close to Thibaut Courtois, who managed to drop down quickly enough to parry the ball. The Bayern Munich star was denied by Real Madrid’s top-end goalkeeper.
“It was a big moment,” Herdman said of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC product. “We were waiting to get that first goal and I’m proud of [Davies]. He picked the ball up and you want any player to do that. You’re carrying the weight of a nation. Thirty-six years of waiting, longer than 36 years. Really proud that he picked the ball up; it takes a special character.”
Normally, the decision is left to the players, as Lucas Cavallini attempted a penalty in Canada’s 2-1 friendly victory over Japan on Nov. 17 in exchange for allowing Jonathan David to complete a hat trick from the spot versus Suriname in World Cup Qualifying from June 2021.
“The brotherhood’s sorted that out,” Herdman explained. “The players have answered that question, that it’s down to them. When you've got an $85 million player and a player with that sort of confidence and swagger, let him pick the ball up and take it.”
The decision to not allow David, Lille’s designated penalty taker, to step up left fans scratching their heads. But there were countless opportunities to make amends, including through their Ligue 1 standout.
Even the substitutes, such as Cyle Larin, forced Courtois to extend his full 6-foot-7 frame across goal during the second half as Canada tried to rally late in the game.
In the end, it was all for naught.
Momentum for Croatia
But the fact Canada tested one of the Group F favorites proves they’re capable of replicating this performance on Sunday against Croatia (11 am ET | TSN in Canada; FOX, Telemundo in US). If there’s one theme for this squad under Herdman, it’s that they rarely commit the same errors twice in a row.
Canada not only showed they belong at the World Cup, but they can compete on this stage against anybody. Now they need to prove they can be ruthless when it matters most.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been back [at the World Cup],” said Herdman. “Canada showed tonight that they do belong here.”
Added Junior Hoilett on a Canada side that'll co-host the 2026 World Cup: "We played our heart out today and we showed the world what we're capable of. We went out there fearless, [with] a lot of courage and bravery."