KJ’s World Cup Diary - Nov. 24: Why everyone is talking about Canada in Qatar!
Thursday November 24th, 2022
It is 12:23 a.m. There are two Canadians on the pitch. It is roughly 20 minutes after the best performance this national team has ever produced. While most fans have left, what will never leave is the feeling this team gave their fans on this historic night. They say, you never forget how people make you feel and no matter when Canada exits this World Cup they will do so knowing already they have left a real impression.
Richie Laryea, still in his shorts and now wearing a training top, has a ball at his feet. Inside an empty stadium, he dribbles the ball around the other Canadian, his three-year-old son Elijah, dressed in the red of Canada.
The Laryeas together at the World Cup are back together doing what each love to do. The Laryeas are playing a kid’s game, as kids, just being themselves, just like Canada did against Belgium.
The Toronto FC full-back less than an hour earlier had produced the performance of his life against world-class players on the game’s biggest stage. He wasn’t alone. Alistair Johnston belonged with Eden Hazard, Kamal Miller defended better than anyone so far in Qatar, Stephen Eustáquio nutmegged Kevin De Bruyne and bullied Yannick Carrasco to help Canada win a penalty, Tajon Buchanan played three different positions better than any Belgian in those roles. We can go on. Many have and will continue to do so.
All these players have had struggles to get here. Each one, told at times they were not good enough. Many playing in League1 Ontario, desperate to just stay in the game and be noticed. Now it was their turn to put the world on notice. Through it all, they never wavered to be something they were not. This is essential to their success today. Some people in life find it easy to be charlatans; to put on a show and be different when few people are watching. These men are not built that way. Through their authenticity, it is their passion to be themselves and play without fear that fuels performances like that.
Their World Cup qualifying journey to get here was no different. It was always going to be bigger than their destination, in terms of the importance of the sport in this country, but whether it was Cayman Islands on a field in Florida or Mexico in Edmonton they were just themselves. They couldn’t be anything else.
Now here, that continues to serve them well. In a competition that has swallowed up many a player, Canada once again played with a mindset of nothing to lose, even though they knew of course they could. The first time these boys played a competitive game, a game with real teams, real kits, real numbers on their back, they did it because they loved the game. Here in Qatar the scenes may be unfamiliar but when the whistle blows it’s still just a football pitch and 22 players.
Therefore, despite the narrow 1-0 loss, it was a night of celebration. Understandably the players were dejected after the game. Talking to them you could see it. They are focused on the task at hand, competing at the World Cup and going as far as possible. Yet, there are bigger things at play here. Yes, even bigger than accomplishments at the World Cup.
Canada captivated Concacaf for 20 games of World Cup qualifying, not just because they won but how they won. This team of likeable individuals are fearless on the field and entertain. At a crucial time of existence for the sport in this country, this is essential for the sport to grow. Thousands of new fans watched the game against Belgium and were captivated by that effort. In the path of development for this team it is still allowed a showing where a nation can be proud of a loss. These are few and far between in sports these days but if there was ever a game and a showing that can be looked upon that way, this was it. If Alphonso Davies had scored the penalty and Canada had camped in a low block for the rest of the game, defending deep to hold on to a 1-0 win it would not only have been less consuming for new fans but, even more importantly, it would not have been this Canada. Still a bunch of kids, forever kicking a ball.
Morocco 0, Croatia 0
Yesterday was always going to be Canada’s day. For me, though, it began early once again and a bus ride north to Al Bayt, the furthest stadium from Doha as I went to watch closely Canada’s next two opponents.
We are taught to not read into too much early when it comes to performances from World Cup teams, but my sense was that it was a deeply concerning game for Croatia. Zlatko Dalic’s team lacked rhythm and flow in attack and Morocco put on a defensive masterclass to stop Luka Modric and his fellow midfield masters, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, playing through them.
Many of the attacks, subsequently, were forced wide and this was to Morocco’s benefit. Croatia lacked pace, all three of their front line were rightfully replaced, and they were left to moments that came alive and died as quickly as they were created. There was no continuity in attack, and they will have to ensure they never play this poorly again in Qatar if they want to progress. Or, to put it another way, if they play like that against Canada on Sunday they will lose. Already there are clamours from the Croatian media to make significant changes to their side.
Morocco is very well supported here, their fan base is intelligent, genuine and impactful. The players relate to their energy and although Croatia are far more technical and were always going to have more of the ball, Morocco knew they had to be smart out of possession and bring real intensity and desire. Canada will have to do the same on Sunday. Results have not gone well for Canada through two matches and Canadians should want Morocco to get something from the game against Belgium that precedes their own match. If Belgium does beat Morocco and Canada lose to Croatia then Canada would be eliminated, something that is the worst-case scenario here as having three games of real importance is incredibly valuable for Canada and their players.
Canada: The Talk of the football media
It is now 12:17 p.m. I am at Al Janoub Stadium on three hours sleep, ready to watch Cameroon and Switzerland. The beauty of being here in Qatar and having games so close to each other is that so many members of the media can cover multiple stories. There is still nothing like watching games live when you cover the sport. The opening two games of the group stages also give teams a unique privilege of having a window to the football world for that moment when they are the only game being played. Walking amongst the media in the media tribune today, Canada is on the minds of many. Pat Nevin, the outstanding BBC broadcaster and former Scotland international was incredibly impressed with their display. Michael Cox, one of the world’s best tactics writers from The Athletic, echoed similar sentiments. Peter Drury, who was with us at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium to broadcast the match around the world, followed up with a message to me this morning saying: “What a performance from Canada, I could have wept for them at the final whistle.”
Observations from Qatar so far
Many of you have reached out to ask what it has been like here. Most of my days are spent in Ubers, on media shuttles, in media centres and at stadiums so I can only really report on my interactions with people. Aside from one scary moment in an Uber in the middle of the night, coming home from USA vs Wales, the people here have been pleasant. You must pass through approximately 20 security checkpoints per journey, with your accreditation being scanned, on the way to matches, so interaction with security guards and police officers is frequent. Many of them are also working long hours but all have been hospitable. I find they respond well to a wave, a smile and never make you feel intimidated. There is not an edginess that can be prevalent at games around the world. Every day the sun rises at 4:40 a.m. and sets at around 4:40 p.m. The signage around the stadiums is very organized and there is always someone available on-hand to ask a question to if you need to know something.
Having four games a day allows us to have an early game (1 p.m. local start) and there is a genuinely unique atmosphere to these games that only the morning hours of buildup can bring. Fans of cricket and golf will understand what this is like. The world just seems to move slower and people take their time more in a peaceful way. That does seem to translate a little to the games on the field, however, with them feeling a little like the 12:30 p.m. English Premier League games on Saturdays that take some time to ignite.
In an effort to combat that FIFA has hired lively stadium PA announcers and here at the Al Janoub Stadium this one has clearly been told to hype this game up like it’s an HBO Boxing clash. The problem is few are buying what the over-enthusiastic Australian man is selling. We get it mate, ‘make some noise’. Yes, it’s ‘absolutely extraordinary’ and ‘look it’s Cameroon the stars from the 1994 quarter-finals’. Not quite. His final acts are absolutely destroying pronunciations of players names. It’s reached levels of David Brent dressed as Austin Powers in terms of awkwardness.
Cameroon’s legendary striker Roger Milla is here, presented an award by Gianni Infantino for being the oldest goalscorer in the competition’s history, which happened 28 years ago. Something for Atiba Hutchinson to chase in 2026!
Samuel Eto’o, President of the Cameroon Football Federation, is alongside Milla. Unfortunately, Cameroon of current day does not have the pair’s composure in the final third. They are an exciting team that comes alive in the final third with their directness but lack quality to finish chances. Switzerland, always comfortable in close matches, is fueled once again by Xherdan Shaqiri’s ability to play quick, forward passes and sure enough in the opening period of the second half he crosses the ball with the foot he usually uses just to stand on and Breel Embolo tucks home the game’s opening goal. Embolo, born in Cameroon, is right in front of me as he refuses to celebrate. Class act.
Switzerland, who in recent major tournaments have become masters on how to navigate a group and reach the knockouts, do exactly what they need to do by winning a game largely remembered as one that saw two excellent goalkeepers, Yann Sommer and Andre Onana, standout in front of an announced attendance of 39,018. Time for another bus to catch and head to another stadium. As ever, thanks for reading!