Canada’s adventure at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar came to an end on Thursday morning with a 2-1 loss to Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha. 

A pair of early goals, the first from Hakim Ziyech inside of four minutes and the second from Youssef En-Nesyri in the 23rd minute, caused some concern that things could get out of hand, but Canada wrestled their way back into the match and pulled one back before half-time.

It was a driven ball from Sam Adekugbe into the box that took a deflection off a defender in the 40th minute – Nayef Aguerd was charged with an own goal.

The Canadians were on the front foot for virtually the whole second half and were perhaps unlucky not to salvage what would have been their first point at the men’s World Cup. 

The most dramatic moment came in the 71st minute when Atiba Hutchinson rose up to meet a Junior Hoilett corner kick and his header struck the underside of the bar to bounce off the goalline, history just an inch or two away.

“It took us a while to settle into this game,” said John Herdman post-match to Canada Soccer. “The early goal was tough. We knew it was going to be a cup final spirit, the intensity in the stadium was wild. It took us a while to adapt to the game, but when we did, we showed we can live here, we showed we were two inches away from getting our first World Cup point and they’re the fine margins at this level.”

Under pressure from the opening whistle it was a mix up at the back that led to Morocco’s first goal. That continued until after the second had gone in, but then Canada found a way to gain a foothold in the game.

“We adapted to the moment. We were able to start to bring our identity,” explained Herdman. “We had to almost reset and then get into that rhythm of their intensity.”

“When we did, particularly the second half, we competed,” he continued. “We planned to finish strong, we planned to rest some players so they could come in when the game was a little bit more open. Those players off the bench just really went for it, they had a big impact for Canada.”

The equalizer was right there.

“It was a very good ball and I just tried to get my head on it and keep it down, but it wasn't enough... wasn't enough,” Hutchinson told TSN. “Today we gave everything, but again it just wasn't enough.”

“We tried our best, we gave everything we have inside, we wanted to fight for ourselves and get something out of this tournament, to get the first points on the board for this country, unfortunately, we didn't get it today,” he continued. “We're very upset, we're disappointed at that, but it's our first time in a very long time. We're all proud of ourselves and proud of what we came here and did.”

Echoed Hoilett to TSN moments later: “Literally inches away from getting a point or a result here, but we fought to the very end.”

“It's painful not to leave here with a point or a result considering how hard we fought and worked in all three games, but we can be proud of ourselves and look forward to the next tournament,” he continued. “It's a tough one to take, but we can hold our heads up and be proud of how we fought today. We have to remain moving forward in this country; never go backwards.”

With Morocco’s win and a scoreless draw between Croatia and Belgium elsewhere in Group F, Morocco and Croatia move on to the knockout phase of the World Cup while Canada and Belgium will be going home.

There will be some frustration to have gone all this way only to come home empty-handed, but that overlooks so much.

Progress is measured in inches and in this cycle Canada advanced by kilometres.

“Come here and show the world what we're made of, show the world that we can play football and play with the best of them,” reflected Hutchinson. “We’ll learn from these games. They’re difficult games, we’re playing against a lot of good teams, but it is a sign of a good beginning for us. We'll continue to work and prepare like we always do and four years from now we'll be ready to make some more noise.”

That should not be forgotten in disappointment.

“Remember how we fought and how we imposed ourselves in each game,” highlighted Hoilett. “It was a tough group and we didn’t back down to the challenge.”

“Canadians are fighters. Each one of us fought to the very end and here today it was inches away,” he added. “And the inches can make a difference in the years to come.”

It was the first taste of the men’s World Cup in generations for this country. 

“We learned that we can compete here,” Herdman levelled with Canada Soccer. “It's 36 years since we've been here, we're breathing rare air. That's a cool experience for all of these players, the fans, all the people back home to see we raised the bar in the way we're playing.”

“We came here as underdogs,” he continued. “These teams have had multiple World Cup experiences, it took Morocco quite a few goes to get out of this group stage. This is where Canada is at, we're at that point now of getting a taste of this level.”

“Our players were shown on the big stage, many of these players are going to benefit from that. And Canada is on the map,” Herdman added. “That's all we wanted. We wanted to get those results and hit some of our firsts, but we're on the map and the country's moving.”

With a home World Cup fast approaching – Canada will co-host the 2026 edition with the USA and Mexico – Qatar was a significant milestone.

“It's there, it’s right there. With four more years of more work, more development, this team is going to reach another level,” Herdman explained to TSN. “We're building experience. We came here to compete, to see if we could push and push as far as we could. We've done our best in that way, but we need time. We need time to get those experiences and they'll come. Those times are coming and we've got a World Cup just around the corner, three-and-a-half years, that we can start building for and a great foundation we can build on.”

For Alistair Johnston, Canada learned not just that they could compete, but, “That we belong.”

“I know the results don't show that, but the performances, when you watch them, shows we belong on this world stage,” he told TSN. “And I just hope that all the fans that came along for that journey will stick with us because it took us to a lot of crazy places.”

“From that whole really difficult qualification process through Concacaf to get to the Octagon and finally to get here. It's been a journey. It's been an unbelievable journey,” he continued. “These three matches were a culmination of that. Of course, they didn’t go the way we wanted, but I think we earned the respect of a lot of people around the world and I really hope that the fans of Canada can be proud of that.”

And what a journey it was. 

“It's been filled with the highest highs and some of the lowest lows. It's been a testing experience,” Herdman told Canada Soccer. “A lot of sacrifice from my people, the staff who have been on this journey.”

“They wanted more, we all did. We're going to hurt, we’ll hurt together as we always do, but when we wake up and the dust settles we’ll be very proud of the steps we've taken. We've taken a program from oblivion and put it clearly on the map and set a precedent now about how Canada needs to show up to these World Cups,” he continued. “We scored in two of our matches, two inches from getting a point, our first World Cup result. That's where we're at. A really positive future and the people that are in this program will stay and keep bringing those learnings from this World Cup to help us get to that next level.”

The next one has already begun.

Canada will get back together in March for the continuation of the Concacaf Nations League with matches against Curaçao and Honduras on March 25 and March 28, 2023. And then the 2023 Gold Cup is set for next summer. With 2026 coming into view on the horizon, it’s going to be a wild ride.

“At the beginning we didn't have a lot of people behind us, supporting us, but now we have the whole country behind us,” reflected goalkeeper Milan Borjan with Canada Soccer. “That's what we need, that's what we were missing – we were missing the twelfth player behind us and now we have that, now we continue, we progress, we get up and we’re going to get to the biggest moments of our lives in the future.”

“Next thing coming up is the Nations League and the Gold Cup,” he reminded. “I think this country can win that.”