Many Canadian soccer fans have been waiting for this moment their entire lives.
Long an afterthought behind hockey in their home country, Canada’s soccer team is back in the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and it opens Wednesday against a daunting opponent: Belgium, a 2018 semifinalist and second in the FIFA rankings.
“We don’t hope no more, we believe,” Canada midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “And we’re very confident in ourselves.”
Canada’s only prior trip to soccer’s showcase was a scoreless, three-loss performance 36 years ago against France, Hungary and the Soviet Union, with a squad that included Bob Lenarduzzi, Tino Lettieri and Branko Segota.
These Canadians are led by a new generation headed by Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin. They finished first in CONCACAF qualifying, a turnaround engineered by John Herdman. He coached the Canadan women to bronze medals in the 2012 and ’16 Olympics, then switched to the men in 2018.
“I think in qualifying we played in a way where we were fearless and we want to do that on the biggest stage,” midfielder Samuiel Piette said. “We don’t want to back down. We want to be on the front foot and go toe to toe with Belgium.”
Part of a Group F that includes Croatia and Morocco, Belgium is in its seventh year under coach Roberto Martinez. The Red Devils finished third at the 2018 World Cup and lost to Italy in the quarterfinals of last year’s European Championship.
Its core may be at or just past peak, with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard both 31, Romelu Lukaku 29 and Youri Tielemans part of the next age group at 25.
“Belgium is a small country, you know? So we’re very happy that we have this kind of talent,” defender Toby Alderweireld said.
Herdman warns Belgium enters with far more experience.
“When you’re coming up against De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku and Thielemans, these players can smell and sense the inexperience in players and take advantage,” Herdman said.
Davies, Canada’s top player, is uncertain after straining his right hamstring while playing for Bayern Munich on Nov. 5.
“We want to show that we are a football nation, that we can compete with the best in the world,” Osorio said. “We want to surprise people because I think people still see us as underdogs and things like this, and Canada and the World Cup, they should just be happy to be here. But that’s not our mentality. We’re here to compete — to compete at a high level.”
WITH THE WHISTLE
Janny Sikazwe of Zambia will referee the match. During a January African Cup of Nations match in January, he blew his whistle to end the game after 85 minutes, then restart it and ended it after 89 minutes, 47 seconds, when about three minutes of injury time had been expected.