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Opinion | ‘If only.’ ‘Almost.’ ‘Not enough.’ Words that summed up Canada at FIFA World Cup 2022 after Morocco loss

DOHA, Qatar—In the end, all that was left was whether Canada could claim a moral victory as a souvenir to take home from the World Cup.

Our men’s football team had already packed a beautiful loss to a Belgium team that wasn’t what it seemed, and a single goal against Croatia, from their first really big trip since 1986.

And against Morocco, they made it hard on themselves. They started as nervous as teens at a dance. Their goalkeeper, Milan Borjan, delivered a stadium-shaking mistake. They were down 2-0 in the first 25 minutes, and earned it.

So again, Canada’s horizons had to be adjusted downwards. Do you crumble? Do you break? In a stadium filled with howling opposing fans, with perhaps your most irreplaceable player hurt, do you pack up and go home?

Canada didn’t, for whatever that was worth. They relocated themselves in a great second half, and were inches from tying the match. But Canada lost 2-1 to Morocco, who won Group F, and are one of two nations not to record a result here, along with a Qatar team that was never going to rate. Which is why, in the end, Canada had to go home with souvenirs.

“I think when you take a goal the way we did, there was a mental-emotional hit, you could feel it with the intensity of the crowd, and it was tough,” said coach John Herdman. “It was tough to rein the guys in. It was tough to get us refocused, back to being tight and on page. So you know when we did, I think we showed exactly the levels we can play at.”

That sums up this World Cup: If Only, Almost, Not Enough. Herdman’s lineup choices were questioned, but he was in a tough spot: midfielder Stephen Eustáquio’s bad hamstring kept him out, and Eustáquio is Canada’s most irreplaceable player. No other Canadian midfielder can play two-way football the way Eustáquio can.

Herdman also benched 39-year-old midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, whose legs wore out in each of the first two matches, and striker Jonathan David, who had not been great, and Richie Laryea. In were Sam Adekugbe, Jonathan Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye in midfield — Kaye was believed to have played himself off the active roster leading up to Qatar — and Junior Hoilett.

And while the midfield was again a weakness, that wasn’t what got them. Canada was already playing stone-footed football when, four minutes in, veteran defender Steven Vitoria tried to knock a ball back to goalkeeper Milan Borjan. But Vitoria muffed it, and Borjan had to come a long way out, and he muffed it worse. He sent it softly, weakly, straight to Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech. More than anything, it resembled classic, error-prone Canadian men’s football. How it used to be.

Canada remained rattled, and Morocco added a second goal that resembled Belgium’s — a long ball that beat slow-footed defenders in Vitoria and Kamal Miller. Maybe the defensive line shouldn’t have been as high, but Canada tries to play forward. Canada was down 2-0 at the half.

And in the second half, in all they had left, Canada rediscovered its composure and conviction. Herdman adjusted his formation and put on Hutchinson, David and the 20-year-old Ismael Koné. An Adekugbe drive went in off Morocco’s Nayef Aguerd for an own goal. And in the 71st minute Hutchinson got his big bald pate on a corner: the ball hit the crossbar and went almost straight down; it was inches from a goal. Canada has not finished well, or executed set pieces with precision, and that didn’t change.

Canada lost, and you can pick apart the mistakes. Were they tactically perfect? No. Were they detail-oriented enough? No. Herdman will draw lessons from this, as will the players.

But maybe the biggest lesson here is Canada was not a team with the talent to truly compete at world football unless everything went right, or near enough.They had played two significant nations outside CONCACAF since 2015, Uruguay in September and Japan in November. Canada’s status as a backwater meant nobody wants to schedule them.

Belgium had far more elite league players than Canada. So did Croatia. Even Morocco did — a site called Sportingpedia added up the respected website Transfermarkt’s player valuations by nation, and Canada ranked 20th at this World Cup at 187.3 million Euros; 115 million are Davies and David alone. We lack depth, and between now and 2026 that is what Canadian football needs most: more players playing in big European leagues. If your midfielder has never seen a high-end European press, your midfielder will not enjoy a World Cup.

Maybe Canada has CONCACAF strikers who aren’t yet World Cup strikers. Maybe this was a thin midfield, with age playing a factor at both end: Hutchinson is a 25-30 minute player right now, and Koné is still new. Maybe Canada’s back end lacks speed and pedigree, and the goalkeeper is capable of all-world bloopers. This team was great in CONCACAF qualifying, built on brotherhood and belief and connection. But that wasn’t this.

So small things loomed huge. And in the end, the tragedy is it was the veterans that hurt them most, Alphonso Davies’s missed penalty against Belgium notwithstanding. The 35-year-old Vitoria and the 25-year-old Miller were beaten on the Belgium goal, and Hutchinson was a culprit on several of the Croatian goals. Vitoria and Borjan combined to give away the first Moroccan goal; and Vitoria, Miller and Borjan were all involved on the second Moroccan goal. Miller plays his heart out, but is an MLS defender. Vitoria, Borjan and Hutchinson are nearer to the end than the start.

The guys who ate the most crap over the years, the guys who showed up over and over for this terminally dysfunctional organization, found the toughest moments here. It’s a shame. But it’s how it went.

Canada can build from this. Learnings, as Herdman calls them. The core of Davies, David, Eustáquio, Tajon Buchanan, Koné, Alistair Johnston, Miller and more needs to be bolstered. The organization needs to be overhauled, to escape its clown-shoes habits. Herdman should stay.

And the bar has to go up. You can excuse souvenirs and learnings from your first trip to a World Cup; the world is a big place, in football. But now Canada has something more to aim for over the next four years, when it knows it’s in for 2026, and will play at home. It was a hell of a thing, climbing back to a World Cup, and the lessons and memories will resonate with the Canadian team. But they’re heading home with that, now. And not much more.


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