In soccer, experience tells. Japan is about to play in its seventh consecutive Men’s World Cup. Canada is about to play its first in 36 years. Good teams, good players, have a nose for insecurity, for uncertainty, for weakness.
Japan needed nine minutes to find it in Canada.
The Canadians took the rest of the game to show that they have strengths, too.
Thursday’s 2-1 victory for Canada—one last tune-up for both teams before they embark on their World Cup campaigns in Qatar—didn’t exactly take place in a cauldron. There were maybe a thousand fans in Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. The evening air was warm and still rather than electric.
Even absent nerves or pressure, the countless tiny gulfs that exist between Canada’s best players and the best in the world began to open.
Milan Borjan, the goalkeeper who guided Canada through its epic qualifying run with his stellar saves and charismatic leadership, has a fundamental flaw. He is not good with his feet.
Before the Canadians really had chance to find their rhythm, he shanked a clearance, failing to kick it to half. Head coach John Herdman, pacing the touchline, stopped his perpetual motion to tell Borjan to settle down.
The Japanese had already mounted their precision counter.
They sliced down the middle of the field, and Yuki Soma neatly handled a long through ball and slotted it home.
That’s how the game works at this level. It is designed to expose everything about you.
On this night, it also happened to reveal the size of Canadian hearts. After a quick regroup, they responded to their early faltering in the 21st minute. Steven Vitoria directed home a corner kick that went uncharacteristically uncleared by the Japanese.
Everyone makes mistakes.
And in the dying moments of the second half, deep into added time, the Japanese made one more. A streaking Richie Laryea was brought down in the box, and the Canadians were awarded a last-minute penalty that would decide the game.
Lucas Cavallini fought to take it. He wasn’t the obvious choice. Jonathan David, who has been scoring virtually at will in Ligue 1, was standing beside him. Cavallini—El Tanque to his teammates—still ended up with the ball. Herdman looked at the rest of his team, now having joined him on the touchline.
“If he tries a Panenka, I’ll kill him,” he said.
Cavallini did, in fact, take a Panenka, hitting a light, spinning chip down the middle. The Japanese goalkeeper fell just enough for Cavallini’s ill-advised mischief, diving to his left before reaching back vainly to his right, the ball spinning off his glove and dropping into the net.
“I don’t know,” Herdman said after, putting his hands to his face, able to laugh about his premonition only because the ball went in. “Just put it in the corner. I don’t know why we need to do that stuff. All I can say is, it’s the new Canada swagger, eh?”
It was an improbable, happy end to a chaotic, revealing match—and the result shouldn’t mask this team’s faults. There is a difference between good and great, between upstart and veteran. It is real, and it exists.
But sometimes in life, and for this team especially, some perfect combination of grit and luck momentarily makes up the gap.
It’s unlikely Canada’s magical run will continue beyond next week. Herdman knows that. He understands better than most that you can ignore reality for only so long. A win is a win, and he will take Thursday’s triumph, along with every other moment in the sun his team is about to enjoy.
“Then you sober up,” he said. “And it’s clear. The second-best team in the world awaits us.”
He was talking about Belgium, the first of Canada’s daunting adversaries. Then comes Croatia—two teams that are supposed to defeat Canada. They are better in every respect. They will almost certainly finish what Japan could not, and send Canada home. If they do, that’s okay. That’s the natural and proper order of things.
The only tragedy will be if the Canadians fail to take the one opportunity that they know they will be given in Qatar: to stand alongside the greatest players on Earth for the first time in 36 years, and to resolve that the next time they meet, they will rely less on good fortune, and more on themselves.