John Herdman remark turns Canada vs. Croatia into unexpected grudge match

Herdman Canada

UMM SALAL, Qatar – On Wednesday, Canada men’s national team head coach John Herdman put on his best Marcelo Bielsa impression.

For most of the 90 minutes against Belgium, the Bielsa-esque man-marking and aggressive high press destabilized the European side.

Everyone was raving about the performance afterward, even in a 1-0 defeat. That Les Rouges took it to a superpower like Belgium in their first World Cup appearance since 1986 was a huge indicator that it’s truly a new era for Canadian soccer.

Herdman's quote heard 'round the world

Then, minutes after the full-time whistle, Herdman channeled his inner Jose Mourinho during the on-pitch interview.

“I told the players\] they belong here and [we’re going to go and F Croatia” on Sunday (11 am ET | FS1 & Telemundo in United States; TSN in Canada), he said with his trademark grin. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

Less than 12 hours later, Herdman was confronted by a larger-than-usual group of Croatian media after training on Thursday to explain himself. The English tactician was fairly apologetic, although perhaps not as much as the Croatians would’ve wanted.

“I mean no disrespect to the Croatian team and Croatian people, but at the end of the day, it’s a mindset that Canada’s going to have if we’re going to have three points against one of the top teams in the world," Herdman said. "And it’s the mindset that we took to Belgium. We have to. It’s part of ‘New Canada.’”

Just as the flames seemed to be extinguished on the story, a Croatian newspaper fired back with a hard-hitting cover and headline.

It’s safe to say both sides will have solid bulletin board material for Sunday.

Tactical banter?

Herdman has proven to be an adaptable tactician over the past two years as he accomplished the seemingly impossible of guiding Canada back to a World Cup, finishing atop the Concacaf qualifying table. But he’s made his name as a motivator, and that’s certainly the effect he’s had on this group.

“We don't mind if it gets built up a little bit in the media,” said CF Montréal defender Alistair Johnston. “It's a little bit of fun, it gets a little more exciting around the matchup, not just in Canada and Croatia, but from other countries as well.

“You have a bit of extra interest for the match, so I think that's kind of exciting for us.”

It’s now a two-birds-with-one-stone situation. Herdman’s comments shifted the narrative off of Alphonso Davies’ penalty miss and the lack of clinical finishing against Belgium to “F Croatia.”

Canadian confidence

But it simultaneously motivates the players to back up their coach’s words on the pitch. The brotherhood exists for this purpose.

Considering how Canada fared against Belgium, that further bolsters the players’ confidence heading into Sunday’s match.

“We know that we can play at this level,” Johnston said. “I think having that now in our back pocket after playing against Belgium in that opening game has only helped the group. The morale is unbelievably high, and I’ve never seen that after a loss before.”

“We just have to keep that same mentality going into the next game and finish our chances,” said ex-New England Revolution winger Tajon Buchanan.

“I have no doubt that we can do that.”

It’s been a week since Canada landed in Doha and we’ve already seen Herdman utilize his media smarts twice. He went from doubting that Davies and Stephen Eustáquio would be fit for the Belgium game to having no doubt that they would start.

Now, these retorts have added spice to what would’ve been an already feisty affair.

But this isn’t Herdman’s first tournament. He’s used to the spotlight, the heavy media presence and the necessity to pick up results from a small sample size.

This is just part of the experience.

But like everything else, that’s still rubbing off on the players in a positive light.

“We're not afraid of anybody,” Buchanan stated. “We’ve shown that we can compete now. We competed with Belgium and obviously we came away with zero points. But sometimes that happens.”

The same mental approach benefitted the players on Wednesday, albeit without the desired result. Perhaps, with the pre-World Cup jitters out of the way, it’ll be a celebratory conclusion to the weekend for Canada.