Saturday, April 20, 2024

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'O Canada' Football

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With so much football to keep us occupied, the average fan doesn't tend to look too far ahead, and so it may have escaped your attention that Canada will be joint hosts of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, alongside their North American Football Union (NAFU) neighbours Mexico and the United States. Les Rouges are not historically renowned for their footballing prowess, having only previously qualified for a solitary World Cup, in 1986, but, this may be about to change thanks to the influence of a man from County Durham.



John Herdman is the British manager of the men's Canadian national team, being in post since 2018, and he secured his role after spending the preceding 7 years in charge of the Canadian women's team. From 2011 until 2018, Herdman honed a legacy that would include securing the 1st, and so far only, gold medal for Canada at the Pan American Games (in 2011).


However, it is within the Olympic Games that Herdman really left a lasting impression. Women's football did not appear in the Olympics until the 1996 games in Atlanta, and Canada did not qualify until Beijing in 2008. There they just squeezed through to the quarter-finals, before they came unstuck against their rivals the United States, who were on their way to a 3rd Olympic gold.


With Herdman in charge, Canada made significant strides forwards over the course of the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. At the games in London, Canada broke new ground (and hearts) by defeating the host nation, Team GB, in the quarter-finals. In the semi-finals they had the unenviable task of trying to get past the dominant United States, and yet they got themselves into a 3-2 lead with less than 20 minutes to go. The Americans ultimately equalised and Canada went on to lose in stoppage-time of extra-time.


Despite this cruel defeat, Canada re-grouped for the bronze medal match and inflicted their own good timing on France, claiming their place on the Olympic podium by scoring the only goal of the game in the 92nd minute. Roll on 4 years and Herdman managed the Canadian women to more success in Brazil. This time they cruised through the tournament, winning all 3 group games and dismissing France, once more, in the quarter-finals.


Unfortunately the semi-finals again proved to be a stumbling block, as Canada fell to a 2-0 defeat against Germany, who went on to secure gold themselves after 3 previous bronze medals. In their own bronze medal match, Canada inflicted pain on the host nation for the 2nd consecutive games, as they silenced the home crowd and defeated Brazil 2-1. The legacy that Herdman had helped to put in place for the women's team came full circle earlier this summer, when Canada travelled to the delayed Tokyo Olympics and won a historic gold medal. To make it even sweeter, and cathartic, they knocked out the United States in the semi-finals, before beating Sweden in the final via a dramatic penalty shoot-out.


As a result of Herdman's tenure in charge of the women's team, the Canadian Soccer Association gave him the opportunity to turn his attention to the men's team in January 2018. Since then he has amassed a very impressive record, winning 23 out of his 33 matches as boss, to give him a win percentage of 69.69%. Whilst some of those wins have admittedly come against minnows of the international football world, it's also clear that over the past 3+ years that Herdman has gradually and incrementally developed the men's Canadian team to become a more effective and competitive unit.


In his 1st tournament as manager, Herdman led Canada to the quarter-finals of the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they eventually fell to a 3-2 defeat against Haiti after having led 2-0. But then later that same year, Canada recorded their 1st victory over the United States in 34 long years (2-0), in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League tournament. Regardless of how they went on to lose the repeat fixture within the round-robin group stage, this felt like a landmark moment for the men's team, ending a run of 17 games where the Canadians had failed to get one over their nearest rivals.


When it came to the CONCACAF Gold Cup of this year, Canada went a step further by reaching their 1st semi-final since 2007. A narrow loss to Mexico ended their hopes of winning the competition for the 1st time since 2000, the goal to make it 2-1 arrived via Héctor Herrera in the 99th minute!


Of course, even with the best coaching in the world, a good football team needs to have some individual talent, and Canada are no different. They have a young, dynamic squad that has gelled well and their set-up includes a prolific attack. They have Jonathan David who won Ligue 1 with Lille last season and the striker Cyle Larin, who was a major part in Beşiktaş winning the 2021 Süper Lig and cup double. Then there is Alphonso Davies. The 20 year old has been established as the left-back for Bayern Munich these past 3 seasons now, but with Canada his attacking potential as a winger has delivered 10 goals in 28 caps.  


Now Herdman and his Canadian team are in the thick of their World Cup qualifying schedule. They have cruised through the 1st 2 hurdles towards Qatar 2022, but the 3rd and final stage has the old foes of United States and Mexico within the 8 nation group. The top 3 nations are guaranteed a place in Qatar, whilst 4th place goes into the lottery of the inter-confederation play-offs. Having had nearly 4 years of progression under the stewardship of their Englishman, Canada are currently sitting in that coveted 3rd place after 6 matches, and remain unbeaten having recorded 1-1 draws away to both United States and Mexico.


After taking points from arguably their toughest 2 games, there is a growing sense that the next 6 months represents a huge opportunity for Canada to emulate their 1986 team, at least in qualifying for the biggest stage in world football. If Canada can make the most of their home fixtures, as they did this week with a 4-1 thumping of Panama, then Herdman will have completed a remarkable job for the Canucks.

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