Nobody knew what to expect; nobody could have expected that.
The Canadian Men’s National Team went toe-to-toe with Belgium on Wednesday in their opening Group F game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Ar-Rayyan.
A strike from Michy Batshuayi in the 44th minute, capitalizing on a long ball up the middle, was enough for the Belgians to take the three points with a 1-0 victory, but for their first match on the world stage in 36 years it was quite the effort.
That dual sensation, of pride and disappointment, was palpable after the final whistle.
“Proud of the performance, but you need to take three points in your first game,” John Herdman told TSN post-match. “We had an opportunity tonight to be top of the group, that was the mission and we missed it.”
“But I am proud of the performance,” he reiterated. “These lads put in a shift in, they showed that they can live on this stage, and they made the fans proud, made them feel like they belong here. That was important for us.”
It was an emotional day – not just the 90 minutes, but the hours before and afterwards as well.
“A bunch of emotions,” described Atiba Hutchinson to TSN. “[In] the build-up there was just so much running through my head and I'm sure everybody else's in the changing room and the country.”
“We went out there, approached the game with the right mentality. We wanted to go out there and play for a win and that's what we did,” continued the Brampton, Ontario-native. “Unfortunately, we didn't get the result we were looking for. We had a penalty saved – that's sometimes how it goes in football – and just continued after that. They had a goal and after that we still continued and maybe had another penalty shout, which didn't go our way. But all in all, we had the right mentality, we played some good stuff, and we're just a bit unlucky not to get a better result.”
Belgium could not handle the energy, intensity, and enthusiasm that Canada brought to the game.
In the 9th minute Canada earned a penalty kick when Yannick Carrasco blocked a Tajon Buchanan shot with his forearm.
Alphonso Davies wanted the responsibility of converting and scoring the first-ever goal at a men’s World Cup for Canada, but after a lengthy wait his attempt was saved by Thibault Courtois.
“It’s disappointing to taste defeat, it’s not easy to lose, but the boys did well today. We came out against a great Belgium squad and we performed,” Davies told TSN post-match. “It didn't go our way today, but we’re definitely going to come back stronger in the next game.”
“We showed that we belong on this stage, we showed that we can play at this level,” he added. “The penalty happens. You pick a side, the goalkeeper guessed correctly, he saves it, or you get lucky and put it in.”
That was just one of many chances Canada created, but Belgium needed just the one.
“We played our hearts out today and showed the world what we're capable of,” said Brampton attacker Junior Hoilett to Canada Soccer. “We went out there fearless, with a lot of courage, and brave. We played our game, controlled the game, but we didn't get the three points that we wanted.”
Added Steven Vitoria: “Really tough to lose like this, but I think – I don't think, I know – it's fair to say that we deserved more today. This is the image that we want to leave, but we want to leave it with points, with wins.”
The Canadians accomplished some of the goals they set for themselves heading into Qatar.
“This group of players, they set a goal,” explained Herdman to TSN. “The first goal was to be fearless at this World Cup and the second goal was to entertain, so there's two goals that they reached tonight.”
“The other goals were the first goal, first win, first result. We weren't able to achieve that, so still a lot to play for,” he continued. “The draw with Morocco and Croatia has really kept this group wide open and gives us a chance to really fight back against those two teams.”
Morocco and Croatia drew 0-0 in the other Group F match earlier in the day.
The will have been put on notice by how Canada approached Belgium, earning praise from Roberto Martínez, the Belgian head coach.
“Canada were better than us,” he said post-match to Fox Sports. “They played their game. We allowed them to play their game with a lot of breakages, with a lot of space, using their physicality. We couldn’t play through their line of pressure.”
“They were very brave. They took a lot of risks,” added Martínez. “And we had to find another way to win the game.”
Canada got the world’s attention.
“It says a lot about our group, this brotherhood. It wasn't easy, but our coach asked us to be fearless and we were,” highlighted Vitoria. “So much positive to take from tonight, but we're not satisfied, we want more and we're not going to stop until we get more.”
“This is how we want to play, this is the image that we want to leave, but with points, with wins,” stressed the defender from Mississauga, Ontario. “And now all energy and all focus are towards Croatia.”
And if they continue to play like that in their two remaining group matches at the World Cup the goals will come.
“Another day we could have had four or five, but today wasn't our day. We just have to keep going, keep putting crosses in the box, keep shooting,” urged Hoilett. “Once we get that first one and break the ice, the rest will follow.”
Herdman gathered his side for an on-pitch huddle after the final whistle and led them around the stadium to applaud the Canadian fans in attendance.
“I just showed them the stats, showed them they belong here, told them they belong here, and we're going to go and F– Croatia,” he explained to TSN. “That's as simple as it gets. That's our next mission now. Told them that I lost my first game at the 2012 Olympics and we went on to win our first medal in 86 six years.”
“It’s how we respond now,” Herdman continued. “With that belief and we keep the brotherhood tight, we’ve got a chance.”
Added Hutchinson: “There's the six more points to play for. Everybody in our changing room knows what we're capable of doing.”
Canada will face Croatia in their second match on Sunday and Morocco in the third next Thursday.
“We go into this Croatia game with a bit of fire in our bellies,” Herdman said to Canada Soccer. “We’re hungry or even more hungry. We know we deserve to be here, we know we can represent, and it's time, it's time for us to push on. Next task, next game.”
One element of going to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years was simply to announce to the footballing world that the Canadian men are here. An emphatic performance, an attention-grabbing defeat, and a flood of red jerseys in the stands made that point abundantly clear.
“They were amazing tonight,” Herdman told TSN of the fans in attendance. “We represented tonight. This country looked and felt like a football country.”
“I’m proud of them, really proud. So many have turned up. We're playing a powerhouse of football and it felt like we were the home crowd for the 90 minutes,” he added. “These people can go home proud. When people see the maple leaf now around here, people will know we’re a football country.”