Sometimes the stars just align; sometimes everything just clicks. Plenty of events in the world over the last few years might lead people to believe there is a glitch in our collective matrix. There is a lot going on in the world of football that is so criminally bad that it is difficult to see the good. For those still looking, let me tell you where it is – Canada.
The last few years have brought a lot of change in Canada’s football arena. After a few previous failed attempts, the country has finally embarked on a successful national league journey with the Canadian Premier League (CPL). It may only be small, in stark contrast to the country’s land mass, but it is beautifully formed. Seven clubs (that’s not even one per province) began this journey with an eighth (Atletico Ottawa) joining in season two. More clubs are on the horizon though and interest in the league is growing both domestically and internationally.
Gone are the days of hearing about the same three teams – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Club de Foot Montreal (formerly known as Montreal Impact) of Major League Soccer in USA, although Toronto is still the standard bearer as they continue challenge in MLS, the Canadian Championship and the CONCACAF Champions League. Forge FC of Hamilton are also making a name for themselves in the Champions League off the back of winning the first two seasons of CPL.
Canada men’s national team might well be entering their golden era too. They have long been minnows in the football world, dwarfed by their neighbours USA and Mexico despite themselves not exactly having been world beaters. We spoke to Pierce Lang of Oakville News and the Canadian Footy Corner podcast to get a better feel of what the situation is like there in Canada.
Like any successful team, you need several pieces to fall into place at the same time – “a confluence of factors” as Pierce called it. Canada have that in abundance. They have committed players with long service like record appearance holder Atiba Hutchinson who is closing in on his century of caps; they have a head coach whose previous job oversaw Canada’s women’s national team for seven years, and before that New Zealand women’s national team for five years. It is surely impossible to say whether managing women throughout his career has enabled him to manage men any better than the previous coaches but, in any event, John Herdman is certainly leading the team well and boasting a win rate of over 73% (at time of writing).
He has his hands firmly on the wheel of Canada’s footballing future too as he is also the men’s national director with responsibility for all age groups from under-14s upwards. They have young stars playing out of their skins and representing top European clubs like Jonathan David of Lille, Cyle Larin of Besiktas and Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich. It is these players and others like them who are attracting worldwide attention now and will continue to do so. Gone are the days of US players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey being the talk of the town; Mexican players too are losing their lustre as their squad ages; Canadians are the new wonderkids.
Last year ended with Canada 40th in the FIFA world rankings – their highest ever position – having started the year in 72nd. The latest rankings have boosted them to 33rd on the back of their epic 2-0 wins over USA, Honduras and El Salvador – the latter their first win away to the Latin American nation since 1986. That level of stature in world football increases the chance of exposure still further for the exciting starlets of Canada. Some countries and football associations require a certain level to allow work permits to play in their country, perhaps most notably the English Premier League following the Brexit-enforced tightening of requirements. Canada’s improvement rate is growing at high speed and shows no sign of slowing any time soon. “It is an ever-evolving process that never ceases to amaze,” as Lang so eloquently defines it.
With just two games to go in the 2022 World Cup Qualifying schedule, Canada sit top of the group, four points clear having already played and beaten their nearest rivals, USA and Mexico, who also still must play each other. In fact, Canada is in an elite group of nations who have remained unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying campaign, matching football heavyweights like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France….and England.
Barring a major catastrophe, therefore, Canada should qualify for their first World Cup since 1986. At that tournament in Mexico, they failed to register a single point or even a goal. In Qatar, in November, Canada will almost certainly wave their maple leaf proudly and with higher expectations than they have ever had before. They will be under no illusions that they will be huge outsiders for the latter stages of the event but hope and good spirits can take you a long way, as can underestimation from opposing teams. “The fans did not expect to qualify, a playoff was the most they were hoping for,” explained Lang. “Now, they’re in dreamland”.
Four years following the upcoming tournament, along with USA and Mexico, Canada will jointly host the 2026 World Cup. FIFA has allegedly yet to decide whether the country will automatically qualify as is usually the case with host nations, but they can be confident that even without that traditional advantage they are likely to be involved in the competition proper. As Lang and the rest of Canada are expecting, they will “showcase their ability” that they will have nurtured in the period leading up and can continue to push forward with this “wild-eyed fearlessness” they have begun playing with.
Like any impressive movement, people want to be a part of it. We see players who have international options debating which nation to represent and there are a whole host of young players that now consider Canada as an attractive proposition. Alphonso Davies was born in Ghana; Ike Ugbo in England; Ballou Tabla in Ivory Coast; they’ve all decided to represent Canada, and there will be plenty following them.
Canada’s men’s national team are seemingly hitting their stride; their golden era; just how sweet could that maple syrup taste?
‘O Canada…With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free.’