Going to the World Cup was always going to be an experience.
Somewhat lost in the sheer delight of the performance against Belgium in their first Group F match and the furor over an incautious pronouncement was the size of the task that faced them.
Croatia abruptly brought Canada back down to earth with a 4-1 win on Sunday morning at Khalifa International Stadium in Ar-Rayyan, Qatar, but not until after Alphonso Davies sent the country into the atmosphere with a towering header inside the second minute of play, scoring Canada’s first-ever goal at a men’s World Cup.
A brace from Andrej Kramarić, scoring in the 36th and 70th minutes, as well as singles from Marko Livaja and Lovro Majer at the ends of each half halted Canada’s hopes of getting out of the group, but there was still a lightness after the final whistle.
“A lot of pride in that performance,” said John Herdman to TSN minutes after the final whistle. “In moments they showed that they could compete on the world stage. To see us score our first goal and have that moment with the fans, knowing that people back home, east-to-west, were celebrating somewhere. It was a great moment.”
“When they scored that second goal, it was a turning point,” he continued, referring to Livaja’s 44th minute strike that sent Croatia into the break with a lead. “We had to come out, [go] after the game and this team are absolute killers in transition. When you give them that little inch, they'll take a yard.”
“But I’m proud. We fought til the end. We had good chances,” Herdman added. “There was a little bit of luck in some of their goals and I thought we could have had a goal, another one.”
Canada did have a number of looks at getting back into the game, including an effort from Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio, who came on at half-time and nearly stroked in a lovely right-footed equalizer four minutes after the restart.
Alas, it was not to be and Canada will be coming home.
Davies, who wrote his name ever deeper into the history books, spoke plainly on the sidelines post-match with TSN: “Disappointed in the result. It's not easy to take defeat and today we lost the game.”
“We did our best, we fought every single minute,” he continued. “It's about winning, especially in this tournament, and we needed those three points.”
That’s the World Cup, that’s soccer, that’s life. The bad with the good.
Though hopes of advancing out of the group were shattered, that first goal was worth the wait.
Cyle Larin brings down a ball and dishes wide right to Tajon Buchanan. Buchanan lifts his head and hits an inviting ball towards the back-post. Davies, tearing, as only he can, up that left-side leaps to meet it, powering a header right down the heart of the Croatian goal.
The jubilation: what it meant to the players on the field, the team, the fans in the stands and those watching at home.
“It means a lot,” said Osorio to TSN in the halls of the stadium. “We had that moment of scoring a goal, going up in a game early. You could see – with the whole stadium, the Canadian fans, with us on the bench running after Phonzie.”
“It meant no disrespect to Croatia or nothing, we were all excited and it's history for our country,” he continued. “Who else deserves it more than our guy, Alphonso Davies.”
“He was always going to go down in history for Canada, but now he really goes down as our first goalscorer. And Tajon with that ball – amazing,” Osorio added. “All those guys on the field, that's history that will live on forever.”
Said Herdman: “Just joy, absolute joy.”
“We've been waiting for that moment for 36 years. It's all these boys have been talking about,” continued the coach. “Their mission today was to make sure that this country could celebrate a goal.”
The longest-serving member of the national team, Atiba Hutchinson, was making his 100th appearance for Canada.
“That was a first for us. We've been waiting for that a very long time,” he reflected with TSN. “It makes you feel like a little kid again.”
“It was an amazing cross from Tajon and to see the effort that Phonzie had to get on the end of it and put that ball in the back of the net, it was a great feeling,” Hutchinson continued. “I'm sure there was a lot of Canadians around our country celebrating like crazy. We’re just disappointed that we couldn't do more to get a better result.”
Said the goalscorer: “I'm very happy for the moment: to get the first-ever goal in the World Cup for Canada.”
“For me,” Davies continued. “It's keep dreaming, keep believing, and keep pushing.”
Junior Hoilett, another senior member of the squad, widened the lens.
“I hope that inspires the next generation moving forward, inspires all the kids in Canada that want to play at this level,” he explained to TSN. “What we came here to do is to not only show fearlessness, but show the world what we're about.”
“We went out there with our hearts on our sleeves, we went down fighting,” Hoilett continued. “That could show the next Buchanan or the next Davies, give them the inspiration to go out and work hard and put Canada back on the world stage.”
That dream start turned pretty quickly as Croatia built their way back into the game with a terrifying precision. They were ruthless.
“After the first goal, probably 10 minutes after, they started to get into a rhythm. Their midfielders started to get on the ball and find the spaces, began to connect with each other,” highlighted Osorio. “They know how to keep calm when they're under pressure – we put them under pressure in the beginning of the game – and then they found their time to slow down the game and play at their pace.”
“That's an experienced team over there,” he noted. “Something that we're going to have to learn from and move forward and now focus on the next game.”
Scoring so early stunned both teams. Stunned everybody.
“When you score a goal, it can change your mentality, that's the first thing,” said Herdman. “And then Croatia, that was a bit of a wake up call to them, they came alive with Brozović and Modrić causing us more problems in the midfield.”
“Tactically, we could have adjusted quicker,” he continued. “That was one of our challenges. We just seemed to sag off a bit too much and then you could see the nerves setting in.
Canada will play their final group match on Thursday, December 1 – kickoff at 10 am ET on TSN – where they will face Morocco.
“The boys will dust themselves off like we always do,” Herdman told Canada Soccer. “We got our first goal. They've shown up and played fearlessly in these games. And they're going to push for that result, that win. That's all that's in our mind as of tomorrow. We'll be resetting and getting after it.”
With a scoreless draw against Croatia and a 2-0 win over Belgium, Morocco will be eager to advance into the knockout stage.
“It's going to be tough, the reality of it, but we still have history to make,” levelled Hoilett. “We're going to prepare right, get our minds around it as soon as possible, and fight for each other – what we’ve been doing for the last four years.”
Added Osorio: “We want to win. We want to leave the World Cup with a win in our pockets.”
“Our team, our staff, how hard we worked, we deserve it. The Canadian fans have been there for us since day one, they deserve it. Our families, they deserve it,” continued the TFC midfielder. “So that next game is for them and we'll be looking to get a win.”
A final word to the soft-spoken Hoilett, in response to TSN’s Matthew Scianitti prompting a message to the fans, both in Qatar and back home: “Thank you.”
“You guys came out and supported us. We changed the game of soccer back home and we’ve got to continue to grow. We’ve got a lot of kids coming through that want to bring this nation forward,” he closed. “You're a part of the history as well, so thank you.”