Similarly to Les Rouges’ torrid Mexico 86’ campaign, Canada’s World Cup hopes have been extinguished at the earliest possible stage. However, their inevitable exit from Qatar, sealed thanks to yesterday’s 4-1 defeat to 2018 tournament finalists Croatia, will feel very different to their ignominious departure from the same competition some 36 years prior. On this occasion, the Maple Leafs have given more than a decent account of themselves and may well enhance their reputation further against a resurgent Morocco – who impressively dispatched Belgium in Sunday’s other Group F fixture – when the pair meet in Al Thumama on Thursday.
Indeed, the North Africans’ victory over a struggling Belgian outfit, who narrowly overcame John Herdman’s side on Wednesday evening, had earlier blown the group wide open, and afforded each team a realistic prospect of qualification. Canada didn’t wait for permission to seize this considerable opportunity. With two minutes played, a hopeful clearance from ‘keeper Milan Borjan found its way through to Tajon Buchanan – once again a constant menace down the Canadian right – who swung a delicious ball into the Croatian 18-yard box, where Alphonso Davies pounced to thunder a bullet header beyond the sprawling Livakovic; cue wild celebrations in the Khalifa International Stadium, and most likely in the streets of Ottawa. This was a piece of history. For the first time in its rather modest footballing history, the Canadian national side had registered a goal at a World Cup Finals. It was fitting that the Bayern Munich star, arguably the most prodigious talent to ever represent the country, was the man to break a hoodoo which stretches all the way back to 1958.
Although the game was a mere ninety seconds old, Davies’ clinical finish somehow felt well-deserved. Canada had been superb against Belgium and were incredibly unlucky to emerge pointless from the tie. However, even in the immediate moments following Davies’ historic strike, which was also the quickest goal recorded in the tournament to press, it seemed Canada were a half-yard off the scintillating pace they set in Al Rayyan on Wednesday evening. Perhaps this is understandable. The emotional and physical exertions of the Belgium game would have knocked the stuffing out of any side competing in Qatar, let alone one with such limited World Cup experience.
A formation change didn’t help. The 4-3-2-1 adopted in the previous fixture gave a steely structure to Canada’s midfield and unleashed the dynamism of Davies and Buchanan down either flank, establishing a platform to launch consistent attacks on Roberto Martinez’s beleaguered troops. Herdman’s switch to a flatter 4-4-2 set-up served to undermine Les Rouges’ stoicism in the middle of the park and suffocated the creative zest that characterised their stunning performance against the Red Devils. After thirty-six minutes, with Canada looking increasingly vulnerable to a team boasting a number of gifted technicians, Croatia, who had patiently built their way back into the game after Davies’ barnstorming opener, began to turn the screw. First Andrej Kramaric, who saw an earlier goal chalked off for offside, coolly slotted the ball past a helpless Borjan, and then a knock-out punch – in frustrating similarity to the timing of Michy Batshuayi’s finish four days ago – was delivered by Marko Livaja just before the break, profiting from some exceptional build-up play from Celtic full-back Josip Juranovic. The exhilaration released by Canada’s opener had by this point morphed into familiar despair.
Nevertheless, Les Rouges once again came out fighting in the second half. A tactical adjustment from Herdman, alongside two personnel changes at the interval, gave his side some extra impetus in the period’s opening exchanges, but their wily opponents, well-versed in the dark arts of game management, knew exactly how to placate the plucky Canadians. Despite the ball spending considerable time in Croatia’s defensive third, the combined attacking threats of David, Buchanan, Davies, and the recently introduced Osorio failed to really work Dominik Livakovic in the Croatian goal. The Dinamo Zagreb stopper did tip a Jonathon David effort over the bar, and also saw a Jonathon Osorio snapshot whistle past a post, but remained otherwise untroubled.
The game’s decisive moment came in the 70th minute, when Kramaric was given the freedom of the
Canadian box, and duly punished the tiring North Americans by steering a controlled, left-footed
strike into Borjan’s right-hand corner. Given their enthusiasm and application throughout the Belgian contest, it was unsurprising to see Les Rouges continue to push for a foothold in the match, but, in reality, the completion of Kramraric’s brace effectively expelled any chance of a Canadian comeback. Substitute Lovro Majer then added considerable insult to injury in stoppage time, notching Croatia’s fourth after Kamal Miller’s error presented the ball to a selfless Perisic, who squared for the Rennes midfielder to cap a satisfying evening for Zlatko Dalic’s men.
Ultimately, in the end, Croatia’s class told.
Nevertheless, for the second time in a week, Canada will earn the plaudits of players, pundits, and spectators alike, praise which hopefully won’t be filtered through the patronising lens often reserved for football’s so-called ‘lesser’ nations. Indeed, Davies & co. have delivered two genuinely impressive performances thus far, against no less than two of Europe’s elite international powers. They’ve met the challenge of Modric, De Bruyne et al. face on, and twice given their esteemed opponents a fairly considerable scare. Canada’s mission would have undoubtedly been to get out of a tricky Group F; the fact that this was even a realistic possibility is a testament to the astonishing development of John Herdman’s side in recent times. However, Les Rouges have arguably cultivated an even better outcome from their exploits in the Middle East; now, the footballing world will view Canada as a serious force on the international stage, perfectly laying the foundations for the co-hosts of the tournament’s 2026 edition. This may feel like fairly hollow compensation now, but in a few weeks the pain of this premature elimination will have subsided, replaced by pride, confidence, and excitement about the Maple Leafs’ potential future progress.
A first World Cup point against Morocco on Thursday would be the very least the Canadians deserve. Given the value they’ve added in Qatar, few would begrudge them this accolade.