Canada has a theme — and a social media hashtag, of course — for Qatar: We Can.
It’s a clever slogan for a team that is headed to its first World Cup in 36 years.
“Canada is a football nation, man. We better believe it,” coach John Herdman said when the team secured its berth. “And we’re going to keep coming. We’ve only gotten started.”
Canada has seen a dramatic rise on the world stage in the four years since Herdman took over. In 2021 alone, the team went from No. 72 in the world rankings to No. 40.
Canada earned its World Cup spot the hard way. Because of the squad’s low ranking, players had to get through the two early rounds of CONCACAF qualifying. They emerged atop the field ahead of Mexico and the third-place United States, which both had byes to the final round.
Canada has since come down from the qualifying high. The Canadians have played in four matches, winning two and losing two. The most recent game was a 2-0 loss to Uruguay in Slovakia in late September.
“I think by the time we get to the World Cup, and as I said to the players, we’re not going to get a prize for a performance award at the World Cup. You have to take your moments and we didn’t,” Herdman said.
Canada is led by Cyle Larin, who plays in Belgium with Club Brugge. He has scored 25 goals, including six in the final round of qualifying. Fellow forward Jonathan David, who plays for French club Lille, is close behind with 22. Bayern Munich defender Alphonso Davies has 12.
Herdman clearly understands that Canada can’t simply be satisfied with returning to the World Cup after a long drought. The team has to win.
In other words, they have to believe their own “We Can” slogan.
“This is what Canada’s got to learn, you’re not going to get a gift. You’ve got to earn it,” Herdman said. “And our whole team has to work to make sure those chances we put away.”
Canada is awaiting word on the status of captain Atiba Hutchison, who missed the September friendlies with an injury.
But there’s a good sign: Hutchinson returned to training in early October for Turkish club Besiktas.
The 39-year-old captain was 3 in 1986 when Canada last played in the World Cup. The Canadians lost to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union by a combined 5-0. He’s the only player on the squad that was born before the last appearance.
Hutchinson has 97 appearances with the national team.
Canada was also without Johnathan Osorio, who plays for Toronto FC, for the two most recent friendlies because of a concussion.
While Canada prepares for its World Cup, the national team is still in talks with the federation about compensation. This year the team refused to play in a friendly against Panama because of strained labor negotiations.
One of the sticking points was the $10 million in FIFA bonus money the men’s team earned by qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Canada’s national teams — both the men and the women — believe they are entitled to a share of the bonus.
Their struggle over prize money comes after U.S. Soccer struck a deal to split prize finds equally between the men and the women.
Herdman became the first coach ever to lead both a men’s and women’s team to a World Cup berth. He coached the Canadian women’s national team from 2011-18.
Canada has a pair of matches before the World Cup. The team faces Bahrain in Manama on Nov. 11, then Japan in Dubai on Nov. 17.
“I think it’s just continue the path of controlling the games,” Canada midfielder Stephen Eustáquio said when asked about the team’s outlook. “I think if we control the games, we’re going to be more closer to winning them. Try to finish our plays. Try to not concede a goal. I think that’s important as well against very good teams.”
After that, it’s off to Qatar, where Canada plays in Group F. The team will be challenged from the start against Belgium on Nov. 23, then Croatia on Nov. 27 and Morocco on Dec. 1.
—Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press