Today is the day.
The Canadian Men’s National Team will play their first World Cup match since 1986 this afternoon when they square off against Belgium in their Group F opener in Qatar.
Head coach John Herdman’s message in the matchday-1 press conference was plain: “Enjoy it.”
“But enjoyment comes through competing,” he continued. “Belgium will be a real good test for the staff, for the players. Something we'll learn from, but more importantly something we're going to really go towards.”
“I think that's the opportunity we have here. Coming into a game like this, we don't have a great amount to lose, just genuine opportunity to make it our cup final,” Herdman urged. “That's what it is for Canada.”
Alongside him on the podium yesterday was team captain Atiba Hutchinson. The 39-year-old has long awaited this moment.
“We're looking forward to just going out there and competing to win every single match we play in. We've got a very strong team with a lot of good players and we're going to just do what we've been doing,” he said. “It's going to be a battle in every game we play. We're going to fight, we're going to show our brotherhood. We want to put Canada on the map.”
“Our intentions are to enjoy the moment,” Hutchinson continued. “We've worked a very long time to get here; tomorrow it all starts. We'll be together, we'll show our brotherhood, and we'll be very well prepared, John always does have us prepared, so, looking forward to it.”
Having thrived through Concacaf qualification, Canada will be looking to carry that same belief into the World Cup.
“You have to – it’s the only way to give yourself a chance,” said Toronto FC midfielder Jonathan Osorio on Sunday. “If you start doubting yourself just because now the level gets higher, you don't have a chance.”
“So for me, it stays the same. We have to believe – we do believe,” he underlined. “Yes, the level is going higher, so now the concentration, the preparation, everything around getting ready for the game has to step up a level. We don't hope, we believe. We're very confident in ourselves.”
Osorio, who struggled with post-concussion syndromes at the close of the MLS season, gave an update on his health as well: “I feel great – the best I’ve felt in months, thankfully.”
With Belgium placed second in the most recent FIFA rankings, Canada knows they are not the favourites come kickoff.
“Everywhere we go we’re the underdogs and we thrive off that,” said Junior Hoilett over the weekend. “We go in knowing what we're capable of, the belief we have in each other and ourselves, and it shows on the field.”
“We set our own goals and we push our own boundaries, so we don't worry about the outside noise and what they think or what they expect. We push ourselves every day in training, when it comes to match day, you set goals and push the results,” he continued. “The belief is there, the confidence is there, and that's what's most important.”
Whether it is Morocco, Croatia, or Belgium, Canada will be ready.
“As players we just prepare for whatever we stand opposite to, whether it's [Romelu] Lukaku or whoever comes up next, it doesn't matter,” said Osorio. “We know that they have quality players and whoever they put on the field will try to make it difficult for us. We'll be prepared for whoever steps on that pitch against us.”
A victory over Japan in their final warm-up game will have given them some useful experience against a top-tier side. Belgium will test that resolve.
“We have to be very, very sound, very tight as a team,” anticipated Osorio. “This is a team that if you give them an inch of space they’ll hurt you. We have to be very tight, moving as a unit, as a collective, finding the right times to put pressure on them and get them to make mistakes.”
“And then offensively we have to be fluid, keep them guessing as to what positions different players are taking. At this level players are clever and can see a game-plan very quickly if it’s not fluid, if it's not creative, and if it's not adaptive,” he continued. “The good thing about our team is that we're very adaptable.”
And in Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne Canada brace for a dual with one of the best players in the world.
“The same way against any team when you know one of their best players,” cautioned Osorio. “You have to keep an eye on them – when they get the ball don’t let them have space, don't let them turn.”
“Around the box we’ve seen what his deliveries can do, so we need to try to stop that as much as possible,” he continued. “These are really good players, they're going to find their moments. We have to be calm in those and be ready to fight against a little bit of pressure, but at the same time put ourselves in positions that we're not always under the gun.”
Belgium too are wary.
“First of all there’s a huge respect for what Canada has achieved,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martínez of Canada returning to the World Cup for the second time. “When you finish top of the group, ahead of teams like the USA and Mexico, that means that there is a real substance – it's not a coincidence that you arrive into a World Cup.”
“Straight away you know that this generation has something very, very special,” he continued. “They look like a team. They never look a group of players coming together to represent the national team. Very clear in their concepts, very, very dynamic, competitive. A team that know their strengths. Real pace, a team that love to open their legs and use the big spaces.”
“We give them huge respect, but in the same way it’s about what we can do, how we can play the game rather than the occasion. We don't want to play a World Cup tomorrow. we want to play a game against Canada,” Martínez simplified. “We need to [recall] what we learned against Panama in 2018, a similar emotional challenge.”
In the opening game of Group G in Russia, Belgium were held off the scoreboard through the first half against a Concacaf side making their first appearance at the World Cup. Three second half goals saw them collect the points, but it was not without its concerns.
“You're playing against a team that have never been in the World Cup, that has a great positive momentum, a great confidence in what they do, no pressure on having to win the game,” Martínez reminded. “The only pressure they have is to be as good as they can and enjoy the occasion. And that's very dangerous in football, when you're facing a team that have got nothing to lose. We need to match that enthusiasm, that energy, and that emotional package.”
A Belgian reporter closed Canada’s presser with a comparison between the two nations: both possessing potentially fearsome attacks, but perhaps having some questions at the back.
“It should be a great game,” smiled Herdman. “Looking at Belgium you can get blinded by their attack, there's so much quality there. We know we're coming up against a team that have been together for six, seven years, a team that have grown together. There's not much they haven't seen together, so there's an element of experience there. We've got to understand that there's moments in the game where they're going to be able to take control. There's moments in the game they'll adapt quicker than us as we learn through it.”
“But we've got this sort of wisdom of never being here before,” he balanced. “There's an element of not fearing what Belgium bring because it's all new to us. There'll be a naivety that will work for us and that will work against us.”
“When you ask the question of our defense, I think we've got players in that lineup that are really going to show themselves in this World Cup. This will be their opportunity to shine,” Herdman suggested. “Belgium when you've got people like [Jan] Vertonghen, [Toby] Alderweireld, [Yannick] Carrasco, [Thomas] Meunier, [Timothy] Castagne, that's a pretty solid defense.”
“I'm looking forward to this. Our attackers will test them and they'll absolutely test us,” he closed. “I'm looking forward for a hell of a game.”