Can you believe it’s already been one whole year since the Canadian men’s national team brought a considerable portion of this hockey-loving country to a standstill to watch the CanMNT’s first World Cup game in 36 years?
The Canadian men’s program did something on November 23, 2022, that few onlookers of this team could’ve ever imagined. Not only did Canada play in a men’s World Cup, but John Herdman’s men went toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in the world.
Dreams do come true.
Herdman dreamt of taking a men’s national team to a World Cup. He had every single player involved in the Canadian men’s program believe it could happen. And at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, not only did Canada end a 36-year absence, they proved to the world that they belonged there.
The kings of CONCACAF nearly conquered the second-ranked team in the world. There’s no denying Canada were the better side, but that wasn’t much consolation for the thousands of Canadian fans in attendance who felt, much like CanMNT’s historic World Cup qualifying draw at the Azteca, that the match was theirs to be won.
Alphonso Davies’ missed penalty, saved by reigning World Goalkeeper of the Year Thibaut Courtois, was the key moment. And, why Davies was the one taking the shot will be debated amongst Canadian fans the way hockey heads still question why Marc Crawford didn’t use Wayne Gretzky in the shootout at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Despite the golden chance to take an early lead, Canada had more than their fair share of chances in the first half. Les Rouges’ 14 shots without a goal were the most in one half of football at a World Cup since 2006.
Michy Batshuayi’s superb strike just before halftime was the deciding moment in the match, and after Belgium’s 1-0 victory the former Chelsea forward, well aware of the Canadian television audience watching his interview with TSN’s Matthew Scianitti, couldn’t hide how impressed he was by Canada’s performance.
Despite taking place in the middle of a work day, the Canadian television audience watching on CTV and TSN peaked at 4.9 million viewers. Overall, CanMNT v Belgium reached 8.9 million unique Canadian viewers. That’s pretty awesome.
In that long-awaited men’s World Cup return, CanMNT midfielder Stephen Eustáquio gave us a viral moment against Belgium that few Canadian soccer fans will ever forget.
Quick as a flash, Eustáquio nutmegged an onrushing Kevin de Bruyne before sending an inch-perfect ball into the box for Jonathan David.
It was the kind of play that would have had everyone from the commentator to viewers at home swooning had De Bruyne made it during any given Premier League match.
“I got lucky, I guess,” the FC Porto star said on the 90th Minute’s Kicked Back Podcast. “It was a special moment, though, because everyone saw it. My friends all texted me about it, but those are the sort of things that can just happen naturally throughout the game.
“I barely nutmeg players, it’s not something I do, but when I received that pass from Alistair Johnston, [De Bruyne] was right on top of me, so that was something I had to do invent some space, and his left leg just opened up and was the only way to get out of that.
“I still have the moment on my phone, and I’ll be keeping it.”
With the exception of Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Nations League collapse at BMO Field against Jamaica, the last 365 days have been pretty remarkable for the 26-year-old Leamington, Ontario native.
Eustáquio went toe-to-toe with KDB, Croatia’s golden triangle of Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović, and Mateo Kovačić; World Cup winner Enzo Fernández; Inter Milan’s Nicolò Barella; Atlético Madrid’s star-studded midfield of Koke, Saúl Ñíguez, and Messi’s bodyguard Rodrigo de Paul. Eustáquio got the better of more than one of those world-class stars over the last year while competing on some of world football’s biggest stages; the Champions League with Porto and the World Cup with Canada.
Now, 365 days later, Herdman is Toronto FC manager and the CanMNT are scrambling to find a permanent head coach and a new identity.
Canada lost all three of their World Cup group stage matches in Qatar, and then the CONCACAF Nations League final in Las Vegas last June. And then the USMNT bounced CanMNT in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup which was followed by Herdman’s resignation, the promotion of Mauro Biello, and Canada’s soul-crushing loss to Jamaica at BMO Field on Tuesday night.
A lot can happen in one year.
This begs the question now: how do you feel about the CanMNT program as we near the end of 2023?