FIFA – Brave Canada beaten but unbowed

A saved penalty means Canada’s wait for a FIFA World Cup goal goes on, but they left a hugely positive impression in their first game on the biggest stage since 1986.

FIFA – Brave Canada beaten but unbowed

It seemed written in the stars. Alphonso Davies, Canada’s star man, just back from a hamstring injury in time for his nation’s biggest match in 36 years, stood over the spot-kick. In the technical area, Canada players stood with arms draped over each other’s shoulders, expectant. John Herdman, their coach, watched alone.

Canada had a golden opportunity to finally score their first World Cup goal – one that eluded them on their Mexican adventure in 1986. They had made a brave, bold, brilliant start, taking the game to Belgium, the 2018 semi-finalists.

The penalty, awarded for a handball against Yannick Carrasco, was their golden opportunity. Yet it was weak and Thibaut Courtois saved it. Heads were, briefly, in hands in the technical area.

In one sense it set the tone for a night of frustration in front of goal. Canada had 21 shots to Belgium’s nine. Seventeen of them were from inside the box. Just three were on target, though.

Belgium had three on target too and made one of them count – and frustratingly for Canada, it wasn’t from a piece of magic by Kevin De Bruyne but a long ball that got the better of Steven Vitoria, allowing Michy Batshuayi a run on goal. He did not miss.

Yet heads did not drop. Yes, a Belgium team with a collective knowhow gained from 925 caps found a way to win, but it was Canada who electrified the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

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Their coach Herdman had arranged for an astronaut, Chris Hadfield, to address his players before this contest. He knows about reaching for the stars. His journey from youth coaching to women’s football and on to the men’s stage is well documented.

Here he was making history as the first person to have coached a team at both the men’s and women’s FIFA World Cup™. Another history-maker was Atiba Hutchinson, who at 39 years and 285 days old is second only to the great Roger Milla on the list of the competition’s oldest outfield players.

It was the youth and energy of Canada which caught the eye, though. They were relentless in the first half, pressing high and pushing on. It wasn’t De Bruyne and Eden Hazard playing the cute combinations and driving over the dangerous low crosses.

Full-back Alistair Johnson captured the spirit of adventure by getting forward to thrash in a shot that tested Courtois. Their fans were buoyant too, filling the night sky with their songs: Let’s go Canada indeed.

Just after the half-hour there was a collective roar which combined encouragement and appreciation from the fans who were rightly loving the sight of their boys having a go, running at the Belgian defence. Davies, undaunted by his miss, produced a stepover on one surge upfield which led to another shooting chance. In the second half, Tajon Buchanan, his back to Jan Vertonghen, flicked the ball over the defender’s head and scooted around him.

As well as daring Canada were dogged too. Kamal Miller threw himself in the way of a Batshuayi shot from Belgium’s first clear opening. In the second period (as Belgium belatedly found space behind the Canada press), Richie Laryea underlined what it all meant by hurtling across to thwart Batshuayi, then punching the air.

The only problem was, at the other end, the ball would just not go into the net. More crosses, more headers – from Jonathan David and Kyle Larin. Still no goal. Herdman joked afterwards that “four days of shooting practice” beckoned before the next game against Croatia.

“I thought at times it was one pass too many around the box,” he explained. “When you outshoot Belgium 21 to nine and it’s 26 crosses, I can’t complain too much. Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it’s not.” It wasn’t, yet in another way it was. “We came into that game with a couple of goals – the first goal was to play fearless and the second goal was to entertain,” he added.

As in 1986 against France they had lost their opening game 1-0, but full marks to Canada’s class of 2022 for trying.

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