Heading into the second rotation through the groups at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, much of the conversation around the Canadian Men’s National Team has involved John Herdman’s post-match comments following the defeat against Belgium.
If it wasn’t for some contact from home, Herdman said he wouldn’t have been aware of the swirling headlines that included a tabloid front page or two.
“We've been on a media blackout since November 14 so there's not much we see, that's for sure,” said the Canadian coach during Saturday’s MD-1 press conference with a laugh. “But when you get a text from your wife telling you you need to start working out before you get home, you know something's going on.”
“Generally we’re in a really light, bright, clear place,” he continued. “I'm just on mission, on task, next task – getting the tactics ready, training sessions, meetings. Doing what I do and loving it, loving the experience – nearly got to ride a camel last night to training. There's been some pretty cool things happening in our environment.”
The Croatian media responsible for the less-than-flattering imagery were in attendance.
“My wife's coming after you guys.” Herdman laughed. “She wishes she had that guy, I've got a bit more of a belly than that.”
He dismissed that Canada needed any additional motivation for Sunday morning’s game – kickoff at 11 am ET, TSN will have pre-match coverage beginning at 8 am.
“We've been waiting 36 years to get here,” replied Herdman. “There's no [extra] motivation for this team.”
“We've been exposing them to Canadian pioneers because in this moment I'm not that guy to motivate this group, I've used all my motivational tactics up in the 20-odd games it took to get here. We've got some special people that have been speaking to these lads and sharing their unique stories,” he continued – astronaut Chris Hadfield was with the team against Belgium. “We're going to continue on that theme.”
“It's a massive game. Canada are playing Croatia at a World Cup. We’ve got a chance to play against [Luka] Modrić, [Marcelo] Brozović, [Mateo] Kovačić, great players,” added Herdman. “A hell of a match coming.”
Whatever the origin or intention of that loose statement in the adrenaline-fueled atmosphere following an impressive defeat against Belgium, Herdman has gotten Croatia’s attention.
“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone,” said Zlatko Dalić through a translator in his pre-match presser. “We respect everyone equally, so we expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worthy of their respect.”
“The Canadians must also have respect for us and this way of putting words together, it's not a sign of respect. We are the runners-up, we are second in the world. We are worthy of respect. The way we play, the way we behave, and the way we respect all others,” he continued. “I shall not focus and comment on other people's comments. We will be prepared, we will be fit, and we will demonstrate respect for Canada.”
Added Tottenham Hotspur attacker Ivan Perišić: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”
Croatia will have closely watched how Canada approached Belgium, the number-two ranked team in the world.
“This will be a difficult match,” said Dalić. “We have to adopt an aggressive stance. Canada is a tough team. They played well against Belgium although they lost. They are full of self-confidence. We have to respond to their play in an adequate way.”
The Canadian men have been one of the surprise teams in Qatar.
“This is a serious national team. If you're first in the group, behind you are the USA and Mexico, that's a great team,” said Dalić, referencing Concacaf qualification. “[They] demonstrated themselves against Belgium, high pressing, they played aggressive, they matched the Belgian actions, and they ran a lot, great distance covered in this match, with great effort and great energy and they deserved to win more than to be defeated.”
“We have to exercise caution,” he continued. “Many of these teams that were underdogs are now great. Saudi Arabia won over Argentina, Japan over Germany, the US and England, a tough match. You cannot enjoy the old glory, the glory of the past. This is the moment, this is the present, this is the situation we are facing. We have to be at our best.”
“There are plenty of small surprises in this World Cup. Canada surprised us all against Belgium. We have to be very fast, we have to adopt an aggressive attitude, we have to be energetic, but still we are Croatia,” Dalić added. “Let's face it, if we just play our game, we will have a positive performance outcome.”
Stephen Eustáquio, eager to prove that last statement wrong, pointed out how Herdman has shielded the team from external noise.
“There always has to be pressure there, John has been handling that quite well,” said the Canadian midfielder. “We're only focused on tactics and what we have to do to beat teams like Croatia. That's why we did so well against Belgium. We're going to have to go after Croatia.”
“[Prematch comments aren’t] going to make Modrić, Brozović, Kovačić play better or feel more motivated. They're the best in the world and they want to win the World Cup,” Eustáquio continued. “It’s going to be an exciting game. There were times when playing Bermuda was so exciting and now it's Croatia.”
“That's part of our journey. We started from the bottom and now we're here,” he added. “We're ready for tomorrow and, with all due respect to Croatia – they have a very, very good team, it's going to be tough for us, but it's going to be tough for them as well.”
Herdman’s son, Jay, who plays for Whitecaps FC 2 in MLS NEXT Pro spent some time training with Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian capital, giving him some extra insight into what makes them tick.
“They play a great 4-3-3,” Herdman opened. “I remember the first training session, looking at the tactical cohesion of these 12-year-old kids. I was like, ‘Wow, this is another level.’”
“Another level to what I've seen even in my times growing up in the academies in England, coaching there,” he continued. “Two years, my holidays were spent traveling to Croatia, watching my son understand that there's just a completely different level in football. The hunger, the desire, every training session they were ripping his bib off – he didn't realize how physical the game could be.”
“It was a hell of an experience,” Herdman added. “There's a few people that I've stayed in contact [with] there that have helped guide some of my football philosophy and understand elements around how Croatia have been building the players of the future.”
And Canada will have watched their 0-0 draw with Morocco very closely as well.
“You can learn things from those games, but a lot of our work was done prior to coming in,” explained Herdman. “Croatia have got a very consistent identity. It's been a winning identity. So we've been working behind the scenes talking about Croatia and our planning to understand how we get the best out of our boys.”
“At the end of the day both teams really have to win this game,” he highlighted. “Some of the tactics will go out of the window and when it gets like that, it could be quite an open game, who knows?”
There was an air of calmness around Canada on this biggest stage.
Herdman, who led the Women’s National Team to countless tournaments, credits the lessons he learned through those experiences.
“Probably the old version of me would have been to overcook the tactics around the game and overcompensate because of the size of the task in Croatia, but I think there's been a real lightness around the environment,” he said. “We've taken the pressure off ourselves, to trust what got us here can get us there, and really be deliberate around the information that's gone out to the players.”
“We reviewed the Belgium game, there were a lot of things they got to see they did well, they hit a lot of personal bests in their technical stats and physical stats, but then we got the serious tone in that there wasn't the three points at the end of it,” Herdman stressed. “These players know it doesn't help you in a World Cup.”
With Canada on zero points and Croatia on one – Belgium are on three and Morocco on one, they will square off earlier in the day in the other Group F match – both teams will be eager for victory.
Canada are ready.
Asked who were favourites on Sunday, Eustáquio would not yield.
“Before the tournament we were favourites to not do a good job in this group and we showed that we can outplay Belgium,” he underlined. “So anything can happen at this point.”
Said Herdman: “We believe in ourselves.”
“And that's the most important thing going into a match like that. There's real belief built on a foundation, a body of work now. It's a small body,” he continued, perhaps a veiled reference to that Croatian front page. “So that's what we're building. If you're talking about Croatia, it’s a top, top, top, top football team. Hell of a test, hell of a test for this team, but we're excited.”