Canada men qualify for World Cup for first time in 37 years: Why historic achievement can change Canadian soccer forever

Canada has become the first CONCACAF nation to book a spot at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. And it’s no insult to the burgeoning soccer nation to admit that this is a reality many did not see coming in a million years.

Sure, Canada had budding world-class players in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, but two stars don’t make a team. The former hasn’t even played for Bayern Munich, never mind his country, since being diagnosed with myocarditis in January. And yet, Canada keeps on winning.

When you consider Canada’s place in CONCACAF, the painful memories throughout the years, and a patchwork squad from all corners of the globe, qualifying for Qatar 2022 is truly an incredible achievement. This framework sets the tone for decades of Canadian soccer, and looks ahead to a rapid growth of the sport in the northern nation.

John Herdman constructs a winner in Canada

The juggernaut John Herdman has built is nothing short of remarkable. English-born Herdman is an anomaly himself, in fact. Many questioned the hire, bringing over a coach who had exclusively women’s team experience, first with New Zealand for five years before a move to Canada in 2011.

“This is an amazing country where I’ve been able to spend six years on the women’s side of the game,” Herdman said upon his hire, “but with the 2026 World Cup on the horizon and an opportunity on the men’s side, there’s a genuine system in place here that can really, really take the men’s program to another level.”

Note how Herdman himself openly targeted the 2026 World Cup — where Canada will joint-host with the United States and Mexico — in his opening press conference. He won’t tell you now, but not only is the Canadian men’s program ahead of schedule, it has blown that schedule to pieces.

Canada didn’t just qualify for the World Cup, it dominated the CONCACAF Octagonal, suffering just one defeat in 13 qualifying matches while displaying both stout tactical acumen and a surprisingly developed talent pool.

Aside from Davies and David, Herdman has had to pluck players from various corners of the globe from places where top-level North American talent doesn’t often emerge.

Alistair Johnston, who was playing collegiately at Wake Forest University just three years ago, has morphed into one of the steadiest fullback presences in the entire continent. Atiba Hutchinson, now 39 years old, is a natural leader whether he’s on the field or not. Fiery goalkeeper Milan Borjan has won four Serbian league titles and has Champions League experience at Red Star Belgrade. Centerback rock Steven Vitoria has played for five Portuguese clubs alone since graduating from Porto’s academy in 2006. Junior Hoilett was a free agent in 2016 before rediscovering himself with Cardiff City and now Reading.

The persistence displayed across the careers of each player in the Canada squad reflects that of Herdman, who himself was coaching in Sunderland’s academy when a position with the New Zealand women’s team opened up in 2003. The coach sees his own unconventional path reflected back at him in each member of the squad.

Canada in the World Cup: Why it’s a big deal

It’s not difficult to piece together why qualifying for a World Cup is an enormous boon for soccer in a country.

A national fervor around a high-profile sports success accomplishes far more than just bringing home FIFA prize money. Canadian fans have rallied behind Herdman’s squad for months, and that excitement should push a higher popularity for the sport across the country.

Toronto FC, CF Montreal, and the Vancouver Whitecaps should see an almost immediate bump in attendance, attention, and interest. It’s no secret that the United States national team growth has directly benefited Major League Soccer as a whole, and vice-versa, so Canadian club teams should enjoy a similar boost.

The players should see a rise in popularity as well, and those based domestically, such as Johnston and Kamal Miller, could see their careers take another step, both financially and on the field.

Finally, World Cup qualification is most impactful when it comes to the long-term growth of the game in the country. One successful cycle can beget more future successes, and as the sport grows in popularity at grassroots level, the national team can feel the boost in the cycles to come.

Canada’s painful World Cup qualifying past

Canada’s history in World Cup qualifying has been a painful one, and exorcising those demons is a major step towards future success. Since reaching the 1986 World Cup as winners of the CONCACAF Championship, the country had flopped at every turn, seemingly inventing new heartbreaking ways of falling just short.

In 1989, Canada failed to qualify for the final stage of the CONCACAF Championship, falling to Guatemala on away goals. In 1993, it lost on penalties to Australia in the intercontinental playoff. In 1998 World Cup qualifying, Canada topped its third-round group with six unbeaten matches, only to finish bottom of the Hexagonal with an abysmal -15 goal difference and just one win.

After those painful exits, the national team bottomed out. The qualifying campaign for World Cup 2002 saw Canada finish well short, a distant third behind Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico in Group 1 of the semifinal round. In both 2006 and 2010 qualifying, Canada again came nowhere close, last in its third-round group both times.

Les Rouges began to pick themselves up from there, only for the heartbreak to return. In the semifinals of 2014 World Cup qualifying, Canada missed out on a spot in the Hex by a single point, embarrassed 8-1 in Honduras in the final match of the third round — a win would have seen Canada top the group. It happened again in 2018 qualifying, the team falling a point shy of qualifying for the Hex thanks to a late loss in Honduras.

Put that all together, and you’ll see that Canada hasn’t even participated in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying since the 1998 cycle.

How Canada qualified for the World Cup

Fast forward to the 2022 cycle, and Herdman is exorcising demons with each passing day. Canada opened the new Octagonal with a pair of 1-1 draws against Honduras and the United States. This was hardly anything to foreshadow what would come, but Canada can tell you from experience that every point is valuable in World Cup qualifying.

Then, Canada snatched a point at the famed Estadio Azteca, and people began to notice. As the results poured in, so did the attention, but it didn’t halt the team’s progress. Canada beat Mexico and the United States both at home, monumental results in which Les Rouges deserved all three points.

Those results were sandwiched by redemption in San Pedro Sula, where a 2-0 victory over Honduras put to rest those past disappointments.

Canada held just 36 percent possession against the United States and 41 percent possession against Mexico in a pair of home wins, scoring two goals in each. Les Rouges have built a counter-attacking identity that gained more notoriety as it gained success, but each match it still somehow seemed to stun the opponent.

It’s not just Canada’s tactics that built a winner, though. Herdman’s personality oozes confidence, excitement, and energy, and that trickled down to the squad. Unearthing world-class talent in Davies and David also contributed, but as Davies’ time away has shown, this cohesive unit is far more than just one or two superstar players.

Canada at the FIFA World Cup

It’s a thin history for Canada at the World Cup.

Les Rouges have qualified for the finals just once in the country’s history, in 1986 when fellow CONCACAF rival Mexico hosted.

Canada, coached by Englishman Tony Waiters, was drawn into Group C for that event, alongside France, the Soviet Union, and Hungary. Canada did not fare well, losing all three matches and failing to score a single goal.

The loss to France in its opening match was the most impressive, as the scoreline remained level until Jean-Pierre Papin scored a 79th-minute winner for a 1-0 result. That was followed by 2-0 losses to both the Soviet Union and Hungary, and Canada bowed out.

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Can Canada win the World Cup?

As is the case with all CONCACAF sides, almost certainly not. William Hill has Canada at 250/1 to win the World Cup, while places like SkyBet have them set as high as 1000/1. No matter where you look, Canada is not considered a contender to claim the trophy, nor should it be.

But you bet your bottom dollar Les Rouges will compete.

Passage from the group stage wouldn’t be a shocking result given the standard set across qualification. Still, watch any of Canada’s matches from this cycle of World Cup qualifying, and you’ll see a team built to succeed against not just other CONCACAF teams, but the more established world powers as well.

A team that soaks up pressure and counters with intent and venom, this is one that can reach the knockout stage. Canada could roast any side that sees itself as the favorite, while if any European, African or South American power thinks it will have an easy out, they’ve already fallen into the trap.

The magic will surely, eventually, run out, but not before Herdman and Canada have announced themselves to the rest of the world. They have already given CONCACAF a rude awakening.

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