In roughly 24 hours Canada will make their return to the men’s FIFA World Cup stage.
For the Canadian Men’s National Team it’s been a long wait – entire generations of players have come and gone without having had the experience of playing at the greatest celebration of the game.
“It’s something you dream of as a kid,” said Mark-Anthony Kaye before departing for Qatar. “It was really hard for us as Canadians because we didn't really have many national teams to look up to who have been at World Cups. The dream was always wanting to play in [one], but it was hard to see it.”
“That didn't stop us from dreaming and that's what makes this moment even more special. We couldn’t see our country's flag being waved at a World Cup or hear our national anthem,” he continued. “For me personally, it's giving that little kid his dream and his opportunity to live that dream to its fullest.”
Kaye, Richie Laryea, and Jonathan Osorio will forever be known as World Cup players.
“It's going to be amazing to say that when it happens,” said Osorio. “It was a goal of mine, even when it was hard to see, so to be able to say that is amazing.”
“But also we're not just satisfied saying we ‘participated’ in a World Cup,” he continued. “We want to have a good showing, really, really surprise people and wake up the world to how good Canada can be on the world stage.”
And that the three Toronto FC players, as well as their Canadian teammates with whom they’ve shared so much over the years, get to do it together makes it all that much more special.
“I've grown up with a lot of these guys and we've all had stories of how we had to get to where we were, so to put a bow on it with this experience would be amazing,” said Kaye. “Very fortunate and blessed to have an opportunity to go to the World Cup. If someone asks you ‘What's one thing you'd want to do in your soccer career?’ A lot of people would say go to a World Cup.”
It’s been on Laryea’s mind since he became a professional.
“I remember a moment when I first got drafted to Orlando. I walked into the locker room and came face-to-face with Kaká,” he recalled of meeting the legendary Brazilian midfielder. “I’m a kid, only 20 years old, and had a million different questions for him.”
“One of the first ones I asked him was ‘What's your biggest accomplishment?’ As a player you’ve won the Ballon d’Or, you’ve won Champions League titles, you’ve won league titles in Spain, Italy, all of that,” Laryea recounted. “He said ‘the highest honour for me was being able to represent my country at the World Cup. It changes everything.’ Those words stuck with me. When we qualified, that was one of the first things I thought about.”
Doneil Henry is in Qatar with his Canadian brothers.
Unfortunately he will not be playing after a late injury put his fitness in doubt. Henry stepped aside to let someone else’s dream come true.
“When I think about going to a World Cup it feels like a bucket list thing. It felt like something that we wouldn't be able to reach, especially being a part of the program for so long,” he said. “It was something that I used to watch on a Saturday morning with my mother and seeing how we embrace the World Cup and seeing everybody represent their nations.”
“Now we have Canada,” Henry imagined. “And as Canadians we can all see those flags, but we'll see Canadian flags being held up on game day. It’s a milestone and a dream. It's like seeing everything that I ever wanted come true.”
Before they’ve even kicked a ball, they’ve changed the game. Going to a World Cup is no longer an impossible dream. It’s reality.
“You have De Ro [Dwayne De Rosario], you have [Julian] de Guzman, and Atiba [Hutchinson], guys like that who have had really successful careers, guys you hope you can have a career like, but I don't think anyone really had a national team hero growing up from my generation, even a few generations before me,” said Laryea, reflecting on qualification. “That's something I thought about, about how much it would change the perspective of the sport in the country – for coaches, for guys that are playing – it's possible to go to a World Cup.”
“We’ll be going to back-to-back World Cups,” he added. “Hopefully it becomes the norm now, for this national team to continue to build, continue to be the best team in Concacaf, and all of those different things. I'm hoping the impact of this World Cup carries on and opens so many doors for the younger generation to do what we did and do it times ten.”
Canada will host the 2026 World Cup alongside Mexico and the USA. As a joint host, they are expected to qualify automatically, but it was important that they did it the hard way before then.
“This World Cup means a lot for the fact that we qualified,” highlighted Osorio. “It's still the old format of 32 teams; we were able to qualify and that was an amazing feat.”
“That is the kickstart for what could be a footballing nation for the rest of time should we get things right and take advantage of all the things that are happening. Leading into the World Cup [here], it's perfect,” he continued. “We will all have that experience, a lot of our players are really young and will be part of the next cycle. All of that is important going into a World Cup that's at home.”
“This has already made such a huge impact on the sport in this country,” Osorio added. “And then once it comes here and people are able to live that and feel the passion that people have for football from all around the world, that's really going to set it over the top and really have this sport competing as the best sport in this country.”
Part of the traditional build-up to the World Cup is the official Panini sticker album.
Kaye and Henry had gotten their hands on their stickers.
“Yes, a fan actually gave me one at the All State [Soccer Show] event that we did recently, which was really nice of them,” said Kaye. “It's kind of surreal seeing yourself in a book that so many people around the country are collecting. Kids are asking their parents to buy them packs so that they can fill up the Canadian Men's National Team [section].”
“Honestly it's amazing. Very humbling, it’s a really cool experience. And I never did that – I never collected these when I was younger,” he added. “It just continues to create the hype around the World Cup before it starts.”
Said Henry: “Obviously, it feels real – part of the history books.”
Laryea had not yet gotten one of his.
“No, actually, I've tried,” said Laryea at the time. “My wife bought a few of the packs the other day. We've been trying to load up them, see if we can get a ‘Laryea’ one, but we haven't yet. Hopefully we can get one before it's too late.”
Osorio had seen his, but didn’t have one yet.
“I have seen my Panini sticker,” he explained. “I don't have one of my own, but many of my family and friends are collecting and have showed me a sticker of me, so that's pretty cool.”
When a player gets on-site at a major tournament they will be immersed in the circus. Every ounce of focus and attention is on the task at hand. Fans and media will be swirling around them as the games come thick and fast.
But there will be quiet moments when they are left to their own devices.
What will they be thinking about in those private moments?
“Just my family to be honest,” said Henry. “They've always been by me going through this journey, supporting me, bringing me to training, paying for camps when I was younger. Having a mother that prays for me, grandparents that pray for me – those are the people that I want to embrace this whole experience with. I owe it to them. They deserve to enjoy with me.”
Said Laryea: “The people who have helped me get there.”
“My family, my parents, my brother, my wife and my son, and then also coaches growing up who have set me up in the right way, national team coaches – guys like John [Herdman], guys like Greg Vanney, who gave me my first shot at turning around my career when it was going nowhere, guys like Bill Manning, people that helped me a lot in my career that I probably don't get to say thanks to enough,” he continued. “Everyone within the TFC walls from 2019 to now have helped me greatly and the two Forge FC guys, Bobby and Costa Smyrniotis, who brought me up from Sigma FC since I was 11. Guys like that and that have had a huge impact on my career.”
Said Kaye: “Obviously my mom.”
“My mom has always been my biggest fan,” he paused. “She has poured her heart and soul into my career. The time and sacrifice and investment into giving me the best opportunity possible. To be able to give her a once in a lifetime experience of going through a World Cup and seeing her son perform and seeing the country that gave us so much play in the World Cup is going to be the biggest moment for me.”
And Osorio: “Just thinking about how grateful I am to have this opportunity and the support that has brought me to that point. My family, of course, and everybody who supports me.”
“It's going to be nice to think of that and think this is what I've dreamed of,” he closed. “So I'm going to enjoy the moment, go out there and do my best.”