Canada put on a show in its return to the World Cup after a 36-year absence but failed to convert its opportunities in a valiant 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday.
The 41st-ranked Canadians looked anything but awed at the occasion, repeatedly forcing the second-ranked Belgians onto the back foot.
And Canada had a glorious chance to score its first-ever World Cup goal and take the lead in the 10th minute, only to see Thibaut Courtois, the Inspector Gadget-like Belgian goalkeeper, stop Alphonso Davies’ penalty attempt after Yannick Carrasco was yellow-carded for handball. The 22-year-old from Edmonton clutched his face in disappointment.
The pace and press of the Canadians caused the Belgians real discomfort in a first half that saw the Canadians launch 14 shots — the most without scoring in the first half of a World Cup match since England (17) against Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, according to sports analytics company Opta.
“They proved they can play here,” Canada coach John Herdman said of his players.
Most of Canada’s efforts were off-target. Belgium attempted four shots and made one count late in the half.
Michy Batshuayi quietened the pro-Canada crowd in the 44th minute, bringing down a well-flighted long ball from defender Toby Alderweireld that Canadian Steven Vitoria just missed getting his foot to. Batshuayi outpaced the chasing Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea and calmly defeated Milan Borjan for a 1-0 lead.
Borjan punched the ball away in disgust.
“I don’t think we played a good game today,” Belgium star Kevin De Bruyne said. “The good thing is we found a way to win.”
The Red Devils had more time on the ball and more chances on the counter-attack in the second half. But Canada never stopped looking dangerous. It was tense right up to the final whistle after five minutes of stoppage time.
“It’s not easy to score goals at this World Cup, as you can see,” Herdman said, adding his players may have tried for one more pass too many on attack.
Canada will next face Croatia on Sunday and finishes group-stage play next Thursday versus Morocco.
Croatia and Morocco drew 0-0 earlier Wednesday, and Herdman said Group F is “wide open.”
Canada’s last World Cup outing was 13,316 days ago, according to Canada Soccer — a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union on June 9, 1986, in Leon, Mexico.
Canada took the field for warmups, ending a 36-year absence from the tournament, to the sounds of Drake’s “Started From the Bottom.”
The loud and proud Canadian contingent in the crowd of 40,432 at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium loved it. Clad in red and waving Maple Leafs, they roared at every name during the introduction of the Canadian starting lineup and coach John Herdman.
It was a goosebumps-giving reception worthy of such a long wait. The road to Qatar has been filled with 36 years of frustration.
Previous World Cup qualification campaigns have foundered under the sun on a cricket oval in Port Of Spain, Trinidad, and the sweltering heat of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, among other locales. Canada was not to be denied this time, with the knowledge a home World Cup awaits in 2026.
As promised, Herdman was able to field his strongest lineup with injury concerns Davies, Borjan and Stephen Eustaquio all in the starting 11.
Borjan was in goal behind a back three of Miller, Vitoria and Alistair Johnston. The midfield was Davies, Eustaquio, captain Atiba Hutchinson and Laryea, with Junior Hoilett, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan up front.
The 3-4-3 formation became a 5-2-3 when the Belgians had the ball.
An errant Johnston pass led to a deflected Batshuayi shot in the first minute that went straight at Borjan. But the Canadians came right back and attacked to the chants of “Canada, Canada.”
David almost connected on a Buchanan cross in the seventh. Buchanan forced a save from Courtois off the ensuing corner, with the Canadian player pleading for handball.
After video review, Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe pointed to the spot. But Davies’ penalty was too close to Courtois as he dove to his right.
The six-foot-six Real Madrid goalkeeper is the current holder of the Yashin Trophy as the world’s best ‘keeper.
Courtois had to make a kick save in the 13th minute as Canada kept pressing. Belgium started to work its way back in the game around the 20-minute mark but still found itself having to defend, with Courtois having to punch away a Johnston shot in the 23rd.
“This is our house,” chanted the Canadians in the crowd.