“There’s nobody that we fear now”: Canada's on an unprecedented run to the World Cup

Feb 4 2022, 12:31 am

There’s something special happening with the Canadian men’s national soccer team right now. What they’re doing is unprecedented in our country’s history in the men’s game.

Sure, Canada went to the FIFA World Cup in 1986, but we never looked this good doing it.

Canada just became the first country in CONCACAF to win six matches in a row during the final stage of World Cup qualifying since the current format was adopted in 1997. With one more win in their next match, they’ll become the first team in the region to book their ticket to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.

While there was optimism heading into qualifying with this current group of players, headlined by Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, this type of meteoric rise was unexpected. Being in contention for third place after 11 matches would have been a success for this group. Being on top with a chance to clinch a World Cup berth in game #12 against Costa Rica on March 24 was unfathomable.

TSN and Sportsnet, backed by Bell and Rogers, respectively, couldn’t be bothered to outbid tiny upstart streaming service OneSoccer for the rights to broadcast Canada’s games. It took a deal between OneSoccer and Sportsnet at the 11th hour to even give this team the mass audience it deserves.

That’s less a shot at TSN and Sportsnet than it is a reflection on how far this team has come.

Less than five years ago, Canada was ranked 120th in the world. They were ranked 73rd one year ago. Now, they’re set to break the national record for the highest men’s FIFA world ranking, as Canada is projected to move up to 33rd.

When Canada went to Mexico on October 7, there were pundits who wondered if head coach John Herdman would even dress his best players. The thought of earning a result at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City was so farfetched for some that many people thought that Canada should just accept defeat and focus on their next match.

Instead, Canada earned its first draw in Mexico since 1980, and when they played each other again in Edmonton, the Canadians secured their first win against Mexico in men’s soccer in 21 years.

What’s extra impressive about this group is it’s not just one or two players getting the job done. Winning three straight matches without Davies, their best player, proved that.

“I just believe we love each other, you know? We could run the extra mile for everybody. It doesn’t matter who’s on the field,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio after Wednesday’s triumph in El Salvador.

“Everybody that’s been called has been pushing themselves to the limit for the country. We’ve been working hard. It’s been a long ride — still not finished. But we’re on a good path… We play, we play for Canada, but we feel the support of all you guys. So thank you very much for that as well.”

It’s never easy winning matches in Central America, where the weather, pitch conditions, and hostile crowds always make life uncomfortable for the visiting Canadians. It hasn’t fazed Canada this time, with the national team earning its first win in Honduras since 1985 and the first El Salvador triumph since 1986.

“This was one of the toughest places I’ve ever been. Hard grass, hard environment, the weather was very hot. The fans were [noisy], a lot of noise everywhere. But I mean we stuck together,” Eustaquio added. “Canadians at home, we really feel this. So we weren’t alone at this game.”

Canadian captain Atiba Hutchinson, who made his first appearance with the national team as a teenager 19 years ago, is the only player on the team that was alive when Canada last made the World Cup.

The best soccer player in Canada for over a decade, Hutchinson has remained largely unknown to casual fans because of how terribly hopeless the national team has been. At age 38, this is his first time playing in the final round of World Cup qualifying, as the team hasn’t reached this point since 1998.

“It means everything,” Hutchinson said. “This team, this program, we’ve gone through a lot. We’ve had a lot of rough times and heartbreaking results… You go into games with different feelings now. The confidence is there. We’ve got a whole nation that’s finally behind us, supporting us. And we feel that and that really pushes on.”

Hutchinson was on the team that lost 8-1 in Honduras, ending Canada’s attempt to make the World Cup in humiliating fashion in 2012. He knows this group is different.

“We can go up and play in these countries now where… we’ve struggled a lot in these atmospheres, these conditions. It’s never been easy for us,” he said.

“The team is fearless. There’s nobody that we fear now. We know that we can go up and play against anybody in this region. That’s because we stick together and we know and trust in each other… The brotherhood is very strong here.”

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