In a World Cup that has courted considerable controversy from the outset, few would have believed that events unfolding on the pitch could stir any sort of shock value, particularly a mere four days into proceedings. However, with just twelve games gone, a handful of pre-tournament favourites have already been severely humbled. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia dispatched Lionel Messi’s Argentina in arguably one of the greatest upsets in recent international footballing history, a day later, the Japanese defeated the Germans in a pulsating tie in Doha, hours after Morocco pushed Croatia all the way in tightly-contested 0-0 draw. Next, it was Canada’s turn to dream, as they lined up against a Belgian side boasting a plethora of household names.
For a painful 36-year period, World Cup qualification had evaded Les Rouges. Indeed, Canada’s participation in Qatar represents their first appearance at FIFA’s international showpiece competition since a disastrous outing at Mexico ’86, a campaign that returned exactly zero points and zero goals.
If entry into this year’s tournament symbolizes the dawning of a new era in Canadian football, then perhaps the opposite can be said of Belgium, with many suggesting the sun is gradually setting on their so-called “golden generation” of talents—although this cliché feels a little stretched given the Red Devils will still have the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, and Romelu Lukaku in their ranks come North America’s staging of the World Cup in 2026.
True, the narrative of a maverick young upstart, lacking fear or the weight of expectation, punching up to a wily old competitor labouring under the tag of classic underachievers, is a description befitting of the ninety minutes we saw in Al-Rayyan on Wednesday night. From the off, the Canadians pressed aggressively, forced the game into the Belgian final third, and most importantly, carried a significant attacking threat.
Jonathan David, who has already notched nine goals in fifteen Ligue 1 appearances for Lille this season, offered a focal point through the middle, whilst the running power of Alphonso Davies, operating in a far more advanced role than Bundesliga audiences are accustomed to, and the energy and ingenuity of Tajon Buchanan, afforded Belgian full-backs a considerable headache down either flank.
Indeed, after seven minutes, a typical Buchanan burst down the Canadian right earned his side a corner, with the Club Brugge winger getting on the end of Junior Hoilett’s resultant set-piece. With the ball only half-cleared and bouncing dangerously in the Belgian box, Buchanan pounced to screw a snapshot towards goal–only for it to be blocked by the flailing arm of Yannick Carrasco.
While the infraction was initially missed by Zambian whistler Janny Sikazwe—who, in truth, had a bit of a stinker throughout—VAR intervened and instructed the referee to take a second look. After reviewing the footage, Sikazwe, who famously called full-time prematurely on two occasions during an AFCON tie between Tunisia and Mali earlier this year, duly pointed to the spot.
The stage was set for poster boy Davies to make history and register the Maple Leafs’ first-ever World Cup goal. Unfortunately, the Bayern Munich star couldn’t convert from twelve yards. Courtois, as he’s done numerous times for club and country over the years, threw out a giant paw to claw the ball away from goal and spared his side the ignominy of going 1-0 down to a nation ranked nearly 40 places below them.
Yet, if the Real Madrid stopper thought his heroics would be the powder keg that ignited his team into life, he was to be sadly mistaken, as the underdogs continued to demonstrate why they finished comfortably ahead of their regional rivals in CONCACAF qualifying.
Within the next half-hour, two further penalty appeals had manifested as a consequence of consistent Canadian pressure. The first, six minutes after Davies’ failed spot-kick attempt, came alongside another moment of dubious officiating; this time, the Zimbabwean assistant flagged for offside despite the ball reaching Buchanan via a stray Hazard pass, with Canada’s No. 11 subsequently caught by Jan Vertonghen in the Belgian box. Although replays showed that the former Spurs defender managed to get a toe-end on the ball prior to connecting with Buchanan, it was another close shave for Martínez’s toiling troops. His side were perhaps even luckier in the 38th minute, when midfielder Axel Witsel looked to have tripped Richie Laryea as he manoeuvred towards Courtois’ six-yard box. On another day, and perhaps with a better calibre of refereeing, the Atletico Madrid man could have been punished for his error.
Then came—you guessed it—the sucker punch. As is so often the case when quality players are under the cosh, a rare foray forward produced a goal out of nothing and administered a hammer blow to John Herdman’s side just minutes before the interval. Michy Batshuayi managed to latch onto a long, raking pass from centre-half Toby Alderweireld before rifling the ball home past Milan Borjan and sending the travelling Belgians into raptures.
Conceding at the end of a half they had largely dominated would have been a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s testimony to the character of the Canadians that they emerged for the second half with the same application and desire they had benchmarked in the first.
With Belgium struggling to awake from their slumber, Les Rouges continued to take the game to their weary opponents. In truth, after the break, the affair resembled more of a basketball match than a World Cup fixture (perhaps appealing to a decent proportion of the viewership back home), as Canada piled bodies forward in search of an equalizer, while Belgium broke intermittingly on the counter-attack.
Unfortunately, despite many impressive displays in Les Rouges white (yes, I appreciate the irony), including assured performances from midfield duo Atiba Hutchinson and Stephen Estáquio, high-octane contributions from Toronto FC’s Richie Laryea and Reading’s Junior Hoilett, and of course an attacking exhibition from an inspirational front three, Canada just couldn’t muster any clean-cut chances to haul themselves back into the game–despite unleashing 22 shots on Courtois’ goal.
A lazy analyst would depict this as a match where, in the end, the class of Canada’s opponents shone through. In reality, Batshuayi’s solitary strike, which turned out to be the difference between the two teams, was cultivated from a simple punt up the park. There was no “moment of magic” to countenance, no sparks of creative genius (Kevin De Bruyne, despite somehow picking up the player of the match award, had a particularly underwhelming evening), and no domineering waves of Belgian possession; all dynamics that make this defeat even more difficult to accept. Knowing they delivered an almighty scare to a side that finished third in the last World Cup will be scant consolation to Canada, who know they had a phenomenal opportunity to replicate the feats of Saudi Arabia and Japan and put one of football’s international powerhouses to the sword.
Nevertheless, Canada will surely now be in a confident mood following their endeavours at the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, and they’ll be acutely aware that Morocco asked serious questions of Croatia in yesterday’s other Group F fixture–the Maple Leafs will meet the 2018 finalists in the capital on Sunday.
There’s a lot of football to be played yet, but Canada, in similarity to a handful of other teams in Qatar, may just be wondering whether the “heavyweights” they’ve been pitted against are quite as strong as first perceived.