It’s a result sending shockwaves across the planet and one that can also motivate the Canadian men’s national team that anything is possible.
Canada open their first World Cup campaign in 36 years against Belgium, an underdog position they relish when given the chance, and Wednesday at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium will be no different (2 pm ET | FOX & Telemundo in United States; TSN in Canada).
“That’s the opportunity we have here,” head coach John Herdman said before their Group F opener. “Coming into a game like this, we don’t have a great amount to lose, just a genuine opportunity to make it our cup final.”
Whether it’s due to Saudi Arabia’s upset win, Canada topping World Cup Qualifying in Concacaf, or Belgium’s loss to Egypt in a pre-World Cup friendly, the Red Devils seem to be heeding caution.
Head coach Roberto Martinez was highly complimentary of Canada right after the World Cup draw in April, and that tone didn’t change about 24 hours before kickoff.
“They look like a team that’s very clear in their concepts,” Martinez said. “A very dynamic, competitive team that knows their strengths, a team that loves to open the legs and use the big spaces, so we give them huge respect.”
That’s partially how Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina. The organized, compact defense and high pressing seemingly frazzled the South Americans, who entered with a 36-game unbeaten streak and as Copa America 2021 champions. Timely, clinical finishing eventually lifted the underdogs to victory.
Canada’s 2-1 win over Japan in a friendly last Thursday seemed to be a carbon copy. Les Rouges also trailed early, then fought back via Steven Vitória’s header off a corner kick and Richie Laryea drawing a penalty before Lucas Cavallini converted from the spot.
The Canadians even harried Japan’s backline, forced high turnovers and generated a few shots from those situations.
But unlike Saudi Arabia, Canada lacked the lethal finishing in transition.
Davies, Eustaquio good to go
Regardless, Canada’s rapid pace is going to be a key element of Wednesday’s game, especially with Herdman putting early scares about Alphonso Davies’ fitness to rest.
Davies has been training in full the past two days and appears to be all systems go for Wednesday’s match, recovering from a hamstring strain he suffered with Bayern Munich.
“I don’t think there was any doubt we’d be starting him,” Herdman said of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC homegrown product. “[Davies] is fit now. He’s hit his markers, he’s ready to go.”
Stephen Eustaquio also trained normally after picking up a minor muscle injury before the Japan friendly. The Porto midfielder should be available for selection as well.
Neither Davies nor Eustaquio featured against the Japanese, yet it didn’t hinder Canada’s efforts at all. That should give the squad confidence they can cope at this level and dictate games on their terms.
“They play in transition and they have a lot of speed so we have to be prepared for this,” said Belgium defender Jan Vertonghen of Canada’s strengths. “That’s why our game against Egypt was a good wake-up call. We cannot underestimate them.”
The World Cup has a knack for raising players’ spirits on both sides. Canada will surely be buoyed after witnessing Tuesday’s early result.
Atiba's World Cup moment
One player who won’t need any motivation is Atiba Hutchinson. The 39-year-old is playing at his first World Cup and is approaching the 100-cap milestone with Canada.
Before last year, Hutchinson hadn’t even participated in the final round of Concacaf qualifying. Now he’s preparing to do battle against one of the best nations in the world (Belgium are No. 2 in FIFA’s World Rankings).
It’s a moment nearly 30 years in the making for Canada’s captain. Hutchinson’s first strong memories of watching the World Cup started in 1994, when the tournament was hosted in the United States and Major League Soccer launched soon thereafter. Hutchinson gravitated towards Brazil, who ultimately triumphed on penalties versus Italy in the final.
The aftermath of what the victory meant to the players and Brazilians everywhere had a lasting impression on a young Hutchinson.
“It gave me that feeling of maybe one day playing in a World Cup,” the Beşiktaş midfielder admitted. “I’ve already seen [Canada’s qualification] sparking a lot of interest in younger players. The interest that it's brought to our country is really special to see.
“I've been with the national team a very long time and I’ve never seen it get to this level, so it’s great to see and I think it's going to continue to get bigger from here.”
Excitement is already at a fever pitch across the country. It’s unfathomable what will transpire if Canada follows Saudi Arabia’s lead.
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem as inconceivable.
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