What can we expect from Canada at the FIFA World Cup?

What can we expect from Canada at the FIFA World Cup?

By Mahith Gamage

If you asked any Canadian soccer fan two years ago whether they expected their men’s national team to be a part of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, they probably would have laughed in your face. It’s not that Canada didn’t have the talent to do it at the time – they certainly did, as we would come to know - but decades of false hope and constant heartbreak had taught Canadian men’s national team supporters to always prepare for disappointment.

This all changed during the 2022 World Cup qualification cycle, thanks to the exceptional vision and leadership of head coach John Herdman as well as the emergence of some world-class talent donning the maple leaf. Canada not only qualified for the 2022 World Cup, but they did it in dominant fashion, topping North American qualifying over regional powerhouses Mexico and the USA. This accomplishment has led to Canada becoming a team that seemingly everyone wants to keep an eye on in Qatar. After all, they are led by the sensational Alphonso Davies – a player who is oddly more famous globally than he is within his own country. But while topping your continent’s qualifying and having a certified world-class player in your team might suggest that Canada is looking to make a serious run in Qatar, it’s important to temper expectations. Especially when considering the difficulty of their group and the inexperience of the team as a whole.

March 27th, 2022 – that was the day Canada officially booked their spot at the World Cup, following a 4-0 drubbing of Jamaica. Just 5 days later, Canada was drawn against Belgium, Croatia, and Morocco for the group stages of the final tournament. A casual soccer fan may have looked at that group and saw some promise. After all, you don’t see the names of perennial powerhouses like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, France, or England in there, right? While they may not be historically dominant footballing nations, Croatia and Belgium are modern giants of the game, which was confirmed at the last World Cup where they finished as runners-up and 3rd place respectively. It is true that neither of them is quite as good now as they were 4 years ago, but they are still among the toughest tests Canada could have faced in the group stages of this tournament. In fact, one could argue that Canada will be facing the two best midfielders in all of world football: Belgium’s Kevin de Bruyne and Croatia’s Luka Modric. And then there’s Morocco, who keep getting unfairly swatted out of the conversation despite having a team full of players at the top of the European game. In truth, Canada’s group is difficult, but not impossible to navigate. There is no team that is too far beyond their capabilities to beat, but Canada also won’t be favourites in any of their 3 matches.

Match 1: Belgium

At first glance, Canada’s toughest opponents in Qatar would seem to be Belgium. Ranked 2nd in the world, Belgium has a few certified world-class players like the aforementioned De Bruyne and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois that are bound to make life extremely difficult for Les Rouges. However, I would argue that Canada has a better chance to nick points off of Belgium than off of Croatia. The reasons are simple: Belgium have serious quality in a few positions, but a lack of it in others. They are not a complete team by any stretch, which is why you won’t find many people having Belgium at the business end of their World Cup bracket challenge. This Belgium golden generation is on its last legs, and one could even argue that their chances of landing any silverware are already long gone.

Canada supporters may have found a bit more confidence for this matchup when Belgium lost their pre-tournament warmup match against Egypt. Despite it being nearly a full-strength XI for Belgium, this result should be taken with a pinch of salt as no player for any country was really willing to over-exert themselves in the pre-tournament friendlies due to the jam-packed nature of the footballing schedule. You might have noticed this in Canada’s pre-tournament friendly against Japan as well. Egypt’s game plan was something Canada will be looking to emulate, however. They sat deep, soaked up the pressure, and took advantage of Belgium’s mistakes. This is easier said than done, but it’s almost certain that this is the only way Canada will have a chance in their opening match. Canada is the definition of a fearless team and they certainly won’t be showing Belgium too much respect, but trying to play an open game of football against the world’s best player in open space in De Bruyne is a recipe for disaster. Especially as Belgium’s focal-point striker Romelu Lukaku has been ruled out of the match, sitting deep and hitting their opponent on the counter-attack would suit Canada.

John Herdman has a lot of quality at his disposal, including a solid shot-stopping goalkeeper in Milan Borjan, a few stubborn defenders, and genuine counter-attacking quality that few teams in this entire tournament can realistically match. It’s also important to note that Belgium have some pretty significant weaknesses in the defensive areas of their favoured 3-4-2-1 formation. Their right wing-back spot is contested between Timothy Castagne and Thomas Meunier – 2 players who are less than ideal starters for the type of team Belgium want to be. I would bet on Alphonso Davies to have a field day against either of these players. There is also a lack of quality in their back 3 as a whole. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are proven international defenders who have a wealth of experience, but both are well past their prime. Canada has the power up front to cause problems for the pair of them, along with Belgium’s third centre-back, expected to be 19-year-old Anderlecht product Zeno Debast. For a team ranked 2nd in the world, it’s quite stunning that their entire back 3 plays in their own domestic league, which probably ranks somewhere between the 8th and 10th best in Europe. Canada may not be the favourites going into this match, but Belgium may just be a team that’s there for the taking if Herdman can play his cards right.

Match 2: Croatia

It was mentioned earlier that this match against Croatia might just be Canada’s most difficult in the group stages. It’s also likely to be their most-watched match of the tournament as this fixture lands on a Sunday morning for Canadians coast-to-coast. So, with Canada’s eyes fixated on their men’s national team, it will be fascinating to see what kind of performance John Herdman’s side is able to put in.

Before getting into the details, I feel it’s important to squash some of the lazy narratives being tossed around regarding Croatia. With an average age of 27.38, Croatia is not an “old” team, contrary to popular belief. Yes, their captain Luka Modric is 37 (and still one of the best players in the world), but apart from him, Croatia have done well in transitioning some of the older players out of the starting XI. In comparison, Canada’s average age is 26.92 - not much of a difference at all. Croatia’s side is noticeably much younger at the back than they are in attack, which is very interesting. Normally when a team is in transition, the changes start with the attack and end with the backline. This could be seen as a sign of weakness in Croatia, especially when you realize that they don’t really have a guaranteed goalscorer in any of their forward positions. There’s no Kane, Lewandowski, or Ronaldo up top for Croatia that is almost guaranteed to score goals in this tournament. Their goals have come from all sorts of places in recent times, and if Canada can shut them down on set pieces in particular, this game won’t be a write off by any means.

The difficulty of this match comes in the middle of the park. While Belgium has quality in midfield as well, Croatia’s is of a different level and strength. The Belgian midfield tends to thrive the most when driving into space, but Croatia’s midfield is almost unplayable in tight areas. From a technical standpoint, there aren’t many better midfield trios on the planet. You can expect to see Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Marcelo Brozovic lining up as a midfield three against Canada, and it will be tough for Canada to win possession off of such tidy players. This might be a match where Canada will want to throw in an extra midfielder to deal with the number of bodies in the middle of the park.

Match 3: Morocco

It’s true that few people know a lot about Morocco. This has led to many people predicting a victory for Canada in this match. But if you take a look at Morocco’s squad, it’s safe to say that they have more quality from top to bottom than Canada does. Obviously, that makes this yet another difficult match for the Canadians.

The pinnacle of club football in Europe is the top 5 European leagues (England, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy), as well as the Champions League, which is a culmination of the best teams from all European leagues. Canada has just 3 players playing their club football in the top 5 leagues – Alphonso Davies at Bayern Munich, Jonathan David at Lille, and Ike Ugbo at Troyes. Then there is Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin, and Stephan Eustaquio who play for Champions League-level sides in the leagues ranking in the 6th to 10th range. In comparison, Morocco has a whopping 14 of their 26-man squad playing in the top 5 leagues. This number would have been 15 if Amine Harit wasn’t ruled out of the tournament through injury. They are a team full of quality and their starting XI is going to be dangerous in many areas.

Funny enough, Morocco was a weaker team 2 months ago than they are now. The head coach that got them to the World Cup, Vahid Halilhodzic, had a famous falling-out with two of Morocco’s key players in Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui. Neither player was a part of Morocco’s squad for an entire year, with Ziyech even announcing his retirement from international football completely at one point. Unfortunately for Canada, both players have been reinstated just in time for the World Cup after Halilhodzic was sacked from his position as head coach. So while Morocco has a stronger squad on paper now, they are also working with a brand-new coach going into the World Cup, making it a somewhat risky decision. However, I’ve always found that the quality of the players greatly surpasses the quality of the coaching in terms of importance at international level. It’s much closer to 50-50 at club level as there is more time for a coach to imprint their style on a team. I feel that justifies Morocco’s decision.

The match against Morocco is Canada’s most winnable, and the two teams match up really well on paper. Unlike Croatia and Belgium who have most of their quality packed in their spine, both Canada and Morocco have more quality in wide areas. You are likely going to see a high-octane clash between two of the best fullbacks in world football – Alphonso Davies and Achraf Hakimi. While many might see Croatia vs Belgium as the most exciting matchup in this group, I think this one could just pip it.

The Verdict

It would be a minor miracle if Canada was to get out of this group and into the knockouts, as they are facing three teams that are clearly better than them on paper. I also would have considered it a minor miracle if Canada was to top CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and they only went and did it anyways. If the World Cup was always predictable and never had upsets, it wouldn’t be the biggest sporting event in the world. John Herdman works in miracles, so while I am not banking on Canada to stun the world in this tournament, it is never out of reach. This is especially true when you have genuine world-class talent in your team that can change a game in a split second. Canada has that in Alphonso Davies and perhaps Jonathan David as well.

You can expect Canada to line-up in their favoured 3-4-3 formation when attacking at this World Cup. Sometimes this can be a 3-5-2, but they defend in a 4-4-2 formation regardless. There are a few selection headaches for John Herdman, but this is a wonderful luxury to have heading into the tournament. This is the case mostly with the wing-backs and forwards. We know Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies are essentially guaranteed to start, but does David start up top alone or does he start alongside Cyle Larin, who was Canada’s top scorer in qualifying? Does Alphonso Davies start at left wing-back, or should Herdman play him higher up the pitch as a true forward? Then, you probably have to bench at least one or two of Junior Hoilett, Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea, and Tajon Buchanan, who all played key roles in qualifying.

Having competition for places between deserving players is a good thing, but so is having consistent starters. Canada has exactly that with their back 3 and goalkeeper. Alistair Johnston, Steven Vitoria, and Kamal Miller have grown together as a defensive unit, and with veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan keeping them organized, there aren’t many worries at the back for Canada. The midfield duo is pretty much set as well, with star midfielder Stephen Eustaquio in the form of his life. He is expected to line up next to captain Canada himself, 39-year-old Atiba Hutchinson.

In truth, it would be a success if Canada was to win one of their three group matches. Of course, those players will want to reach the knockout stages and will firmly believe that they can do so, but this is the first step onto the big stage for many of them. The most important tournament comes in 2026 when Canada will be under the spotlight as the World Cup co-hosts, so this year’s edition should be taken as a learning opportunity against some of the best teams in the world. With that being said, Canada getting to the knockout stages wouldn’t even crack the top 10 most shocking things I’ve seen at a World Cup over the last 12 years, which means that it’s more than possible, even if we shouldn’t expect it. Regardless of how Canada’s group stage venture unfolds in Qatar, we can leave the tournament with our heads held high. The real success was the journey that got us here.