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Canada is back in the World Cup, and has big plans for future

Coach John Herdman yells instruction to Canada players from the sideline.
Coach John Herdman yells instruction to Canada players from the sideline during a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico in 2021.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

Alphonso Davies hadn’t been born the last time Canada played in a World Cup, which really isn’t surprising since just one member of the country’s national team was alive in 1986, when Canada bowed out in three games without scoring a goal.

But there’s another way to measure how long ago that was: Davies, Canada’s star winger, is in his fifth season with Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich yet his parents, Victoria and Debeah, were in grade school in 1986 and years away from their first date.

So it’s been a while.

Canada’s players aren’t content simply being back on the world stage. They intend to leave a mark on the tournament, beginning Wednesday when they meet second-ranked Belgium in the World Cup opener for both.

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“We’re not going to the World Cup just to participate and say, ‘Oh, we were in a World Cup,’” Vancouver Whitecaps forward Lucas Cavallini said. “No. We want to be there with the dream of winning like every other team. Why not?”

The man who has Canadians — on and off the field — thinking that way is John Herdman, an infectious former university lecturer from a small mining town in northeast England who had no high-level playing experience but has made a career out of turning around national soccer teams. He took over a New Zealand women’s program that had played in one major global championship in its history and coached it to two consecutive Women’s World Cups and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mexico could not deliver a breakthrough goal after a clutch Memo Ochoa save and finished tied Poland 0-0 during their World Cup opener.

New Zealand hasn’t missed either tournament since.

He took over Canada’s women’s team in 2011 and led it to two Olympic bronze medals — Canada’s first major prizes in women’s soccer — and a fourth-place finish in the 2015 World Cup, which it hosted. Last year under Bev Priestman, who grew up in Herdman’s neighborhood in England and played on his futsal team when she was 12, Canada beat the U.S. for the first time in two decades and became Olympic champion.

By then Herdman had moved over to a men’s team that ranked 72nd in the FIFA world rankings and started it toward victory in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament.

“People are starting to look at Canada as a footballing country,” said Davies, who at 22, is already among the most accomplished players in the country’s history. “John Herdman coming into the team was a big lift. He brought what he did with the women’s team to us. He’s a great coach. His speeches make you want to run through a wall.

“Everyone’s investing in what he’s saying.”

LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau agreed.

“He changed the culture and the way guys are coming into camps and thinking and acting about our program,” said Crepeau, who was forced to miss the World Cup after breaking his leg late in the MLS Cup final this month. “He created a culture of the brotherhood within our squad. The togetherness has been phenomenal.

“John is a big part of the reason why that group got tighter and tighter over the years. John is loyal to his players and his players are loyal to him.”

Cavallini’s dreams aside, a World Cup title might be a bit much to expect from Canada. Drawn into a group that includes Morocco and Croatia, a finalist in 2018, in addition to Belgium, which finished third four years ago, getting its first World Cup goal and win would qualify as a successful tournament for Canada.

Whatever Canada accomplishes in Qatar don’t expect Herdman and his players to settle for that.

“It’s just a process right now,” Cavallini said. “It’s going to take some time. Eventually we’re going to be the team that everybody looks up to, a team that all young players want to play for. It’s a bright future ahead of us.”


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