Despite being eliminated, coach Herdman says team still has goals it wants to reach
Now we address the notion of “meaningless.”
The Canadian men will be playing their last match at this World Cup on Thursday versus Morocco. After losses to Belgium and Croatia, they have been mathematically eliminated from advancing to the round of 16, which begins Saturday in Qatar.
The game still matters. It matters very much to the Moroccans, who go through with a victory or a draw. It also matters, or it should, to this Canadian team. It took them two years of qualifiers to get here. They had to play 20 games, from frozen Edmonton to steamy Costa Rica, to reach their first men’s World Cup since 1986.
“I think it’s a real opportunity for our players, for our country, to keep stepping forward,” head coach John Herdman said at his third and final pre-match press conference in Qatar. “We’ll stay committed to our identity and go into this match with an opportunity to make some more history.”
When Alphonso Davies scored 67 seconds into the Croatia game, this team had already made its share: that was the first men’s World Cup goal for Canada. (The 1986 side didn’t manage to score in three straight losses.)
At a heart-swelling team meeting on Tuesday, footage of the goal and the celebration that followed was played again and again. “They got to see what we really came here for: to give Canada that moment,” Herdman said.
Unfortunately, the Croatians responded with four goals of their own. That was it. Canada was the second team to be eliminated, after host Qatar, with a game to play.
There remain firsts to be won.
The Moroccans —”a tough opponent who’s very motivated,” Herdman said — will counter with their own, more ambitious agenda. Morocco is playing in its fifth men’s World Cup; it has made the round of 16 only once, in 1986.
“To me, they are one of the best squads in this championship,” Morocco head coach Walid Regragui said of the Canadians. “Of course, they want to make their own history… But I’m not interested in what Canada needs. It’s about what we need. Our players want to make history, too.”
Regragui paid the Canadians a further compliment that, under the sad circumstances, also felt a little like a barb. “They’re a team that should have taken away more points,” he said.
Except for the two World Cup finalists, most teams don’t know they’re about to play their last match before it begins.
Only Qatar and Canada have had the burden of that grim knowledge.
Now it comes down to whether the Canadians can resist the instinct to be wistful about the end of a journey, and find the passion, the ruthlessness, needed to finish strong.
In a bittersweet way, Thursday’s match will be the ultimate test for a man like Herdman. His wants and his wishes will be waging war inside of him.
He wants a result. He wants a win.
He also has nine players who have not yet played — nine loyal men who have been fighting alongside him for a very long time. Mark-Anthony Kaye is one. Samuel Piette is another. Ike Ugbo. David Wotherspoon. Liam Fraser.
He said one substitute came to his hotel room to have a “really emotional” meeting. The player — unnamed, but someone who has been with the program for six or seven years — told Herdman that if the choice is between a result for the team, and a minute in the sun for him, then Herdman should choose the team.
“That’s what this team is about,” Herdman said. “That’s what I love about them.” And then he stopped talking.
There is no such thing as meaningless at a World Cup.