Having assured themselves of qualification with that memorable 4-0 win over Jamaica, the next milestone on the road to the 2022 FIFA World Cup came on April 1 when the draw for the tournament was held in Doha, Qatar.
As fate would have it, Canada’s name would be the last one to emerge from the pots – their group had become clear beforehand as the various limitations meant Group F would be their destination.
It was never going to be easy, but Canada were drawn alongside the number two FIFA-ranked team, Belgium, runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, Croatia, and North African powerhouses, Morocco.
The Canadian Men’s National Team head coach, John Herdman, was there.
“It was a surreal moment,” he said on a conference call shortly thereafter. “As a Canadian, but just a football fan, to be able to see your team in a pot, waiting for your team to be pulled out. Just to see that this is real. Canada's on the big stage now. We're not just heading to Qatar, we're ready to play in Qatar.”
“We know the teams we've got and we've got a wonderful opportunity ahead of us,” he continued. “Everything that came out of that draw was just opportunity for this country – the players, personally, professionally, the team collectively, and the country – what an opportunity.”
His players were spread around the world eagerly awaiting the news.
“We all watched it,” said former Toronto FC defender Doneil Henry, then with LAFC, who unfortunately had to pull out of the final roster with injury. “I don't think we could have gotten a harder draw, but this is what we play for.”
“We’re playing against a [World Cup] runner up, one of the best teams in the world, and one of the big dogs in Africa, so it's exciting,” he continued. “I'm pretty sure anybody that we played we'd be happy to play them, but it's a real test now. We're top of Concacaf and now we want to show what we can do on the world stage.”
Richie Laryea was in transit as the draw began, but got home just in time.
“I had just landed at Heathrow, I was in a car back to Nottingham and my wife had the draw on the TV,” he recalled. “I walked in and maybe a minute or two later they drew Canada out.”
“It was a pretty cool experience, being able to watch that with my family, but also being able to see that live. It made it a little bit more real, but even then not fully real. Even now it's still...” Laryea pondered. “I know that the team is going to the World Cup in November and all of that. Maybe it's a thing of getting there and being there and hearing the national anthem for the first time in the stadium, that’s when it will fully be processed as ‘Wow, we’re here and the team is in a World Cup.’”
Mark-Anthony Kaye, then with the Colorado Rapids, had training, but found out soon enough.
“I was in Denver when it was happening, I feel like we had training at the time, so it was our strength coach or one of the guys out there had their phone and they were updating us when I got back into the locker room,” he reflected. “It wasn't like Belgium... Croatia... Morocco... – it was: `Here's your group, what do you think?'”
“And I was like, ‘You know what? I don't really care who is in our group, right?’ because at the end of the day, no matter what group you're in, there's going to be different challenges that the opposition brings,” Kaye continued. “The mentality of our national team is we're fearless. So cool, we get to play against Belgium, Croatia, and Morocco. We can't ask for a different group. You’re at a World Cup, this is what it's about. It was less about the teams and more about Canada in a group.”
In the most recent edition of the FIFA Rankings Canada come in at 41st, all three of their opponents were higher: Belgium 2nd, Croatia 12th, and Morocco 22nd.
“Brilliant,” was Herdman’s immediate response to the showcase that awaited his side. “We wanted those type of games. You’re going to the World Cup, there’s no easy matches and any team can beat any team on a given day. That's just tournament football.”
“Belgium, we know their quality, players like [Kevin] De Bruyne and [Romelu] Lukaku and what they've done on the international stage and then the Croatians who four years ago were the finalists,” he weighed. “This is what we want. We want that underdog story. We'll be at our best when we rely on our grit, our spirit, and then to bring that no fear.”
“That opportunity that exists in them type of games against the best players in the world,” Herdman continued. “Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Jonathan Osorio, local Canadian boys, get a chance to match themselves, but tell a story in those games. For us there will be a ‘no fear’ mentality – not naive, but no fear coming into this.”
Osorio knows it’s going to be a ‘tough’ group.
“We expected that, it’s the World Cup,” he levelled. “We expected to be put in a tough group, but saying that we're really excited to show people what we can do against a few of the best teams. More than anything just motivated and excited.”
“Obviously they're good teams,” added Kaye. “Belgium is a well-oiled machine. With De Bruyne, a wildcard, he can do a bunch of different things. You look at Croatia, they have a lot of dynamic movement about their team and their midfield with [Luka] Modrić in there, so they pose a different test. And Morocco, they have some skillful players. Everyone's going to bring their best, it doesn't really change the way we prepare.”
Canada is up for the challenge.
“It's going to be good games, high level games, and that's exactly what we want,” said Laryea. “For it to be our first World Cup in over three decades, that's the exact way you want to do it.”
“We want to set out a new way for this national team, for this country, and there's no better way to mark it off by making it out of a group that tough – many would say it's one of the groups of death,” he continued. “We're going to go and do well – you go and do well and it really puts a stamp on everyone's mind for how serious this national team is. You go and make it out of a group that has the likes of De Bruyne, Lukaku, Modrić, [Eden] Hazard, [Achraf] Hakimi, [Hakim] Ziyech, it's a big, big accomplishment for our national team.”
“For being away for over three decades to go and make it out of that group, which we will” Laryea stressed. “It will set a huge example and I think that will help the sport grown even more.”
The Canadians are familiar with many of their high-profile opponents.
“Those are guys that I watch week in and week out,” said Osorio of Manchester City’s De Bruyne and Real Madrid’s Modrić, in particular. “They play on two of the best teams in the world. I know how they play very well. It's going to be tough going against them, but it's going to be amazing as well to see how we measure up.”
Herdman will have his charges well prepared.
“John is a tactician, one of the smartest managers I've ever had when it comes to how we dissect the game, what they have going on, their qualities, and how we formulate a game plan on winning,” said Henry. “We need to be a unit, we need to be a team fully and collectively to make sure that we're able to compete on this level.”
With the official squad announced on Sunday morning, one of the few surprises was that Henry was not among the 26 listed.
Set to captain the side in a preparatory friendly against Bahrain on Friday, the defender, a keystone of the Canadian brotherhood, was forced to pull out with calf tightness. His availability in Qatar uncertain, Herdman explained in a conference call after the announcement that Henry opted to free up a spot for somebody else – the ultimate example of putting team before self.
He will remain with the squad as a member of the wider group.
Predictions, expectations, forecasts, history, none of that matters when the whistle blows.
Instead, the TFC contingent were asked what it would take for them to come home proud from Qatar.
“Sticking to our identity, the way we play, and trying to play positively,” said Osorio. “Playing the way we always play, as a brotherhood and with heart and to make the country proud with the way we play.”
“The results will be what they are, but for us to be pleased we want to show that we belong on this stage and that we can fight with the best of the teams, like Belgium, like Croatia, like Morocco,” he continued. “That we deserve to be on the pitch with them. That we're not just a team that's happy to be there, we want to compete and we want to make history there.”
Said Kaye: “For us to go into every game and play fearless, play our type of football, and really be brave in these moments and fight.”
“There's something that we have that the world hasn't really seen yet and I want to be able to leave the World Cup knowing that we really turned everyone's heads,” he continued. “But at the same time, you go into a tournament to win.”
“I can't tell you that I don't want to win – I want to win the World Cup,” Kaye added. “I don't remember the last tournament I went in and just said, ‘Ah yeah, I'm just going to play.’ I'll be very satisfied knowing that we have no regrets and we left everything out there.”
Henry wants the team to make history.
“Now that we're going to the World Cup let’s be Canada’s first team to win a game, let’s be Canada’s first team to score goals, Canada’s first team to get a clean sheet,” he said. “We've been pioneering, we embrace every challenge. We're going to do everything to make sure that anybody who watches this Canadian team play they can say, ‘Yes, that Canadian team left everything on the field for this shirt and for this country.’”
“We want to continue to change the game,” Henry closed. “Change the way people in Canada view it.”