Canada’s World Cup expectations vastly different from 36 years ago

Canadian men return to world's biggest stage

Canadian men are slated to kickoff their FIFA World Cup tournament on Nov. 23 against Belgium in Qatar. (Photo Courtesy of: Canada Soccer) 

A lot of things from the 1980’s are making a comeback; acid washed denim, fanny packs – but most importantly, Canada’s men’s national soccer team is back on the biggest stage – the FIFA World Cup. 

It’s been 36 years since Canada has heard its national anthem on the World Cup stage, and for the first time since 1986, it is set to happen again in Qatar, beginning with the team’s opening game against Belgium on Nov. 23. 

While it’s the same tournament as a generation ago, the faces, names and the caliber are completely different. 

“The only thing that the 1986 Canadian men’s national team and this 2022 team that is playing in Qatar have in common is the badge on their chest, that’s it,” said OneSoccer’s Brendan Dunlop. 

“That ’86 team went up against some real stiff established countries with a team that was basically comprised of amateurs and part-time players,” he continued

The difference between the Canadian side that is set to take the field in Group F at the end of November and the team that bore the crest in Mexico in ’86 is a lot more than just 36 years – the expectations are a little higher this time around.

“I think the expectations (in 1986) were to do exactly what we did, give a good Canadian hardy performance, work hard and make it difficult for the opponent,” said Paul Dolan, former keeper coach for the Men’s national team, and member of the 1986 World Cup squad.  

“I think the expectations on this team now are a little bit higher than they were back then,” he continued. “Whether it is an expectation or a hope, I actually believe that this team could get through the group.” 

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Levelling up: 1986 vs. 2022

There are a few “firsts” Canada is looking to accomplish on the World Cup stage heading into Qatar, not the least of which is getting through the group stage, but also include registering its first goal, and recording its first points. 

“Their ability is such that now they will compete in every game and with some good fortune that they could get out of the group,” said Dolan. “They’ve got that offensive talent that we didn’t have as much of in 1986, and that’s a fact – they’ve got game changers.” 

These players affectionately known “game changers” come in the form of Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, and veteran keeper Milan Borjan of Red Star Belgrade to name a few. 

TSN’s Paul Dolan discusses game changers on Canada’s team.

This is what seems to be the biggest difference between both of Canada’s World Cup teams – the caliber of players on the pitch. 

The North American Soccer League (NASL) played home to many of the Canadians who took the field in Mexico in ’86 but the league’s demise came at an untimely juncture for the national team players. 

“The NASL had folded in 1984 and that’s where most of us had played throughout our careers… so there was a massive void between then and going to the World Cup,” explained Bob Lenarduzzi, defender for Canada in 1986 and former Canadian head coach. 

With the league that housed a majority of the team’s players going under, many of Canada’s players were left without clubs to play for and were forced to find alternatives to keep up their skills. 

“Some of the players, myself included, went to play indoor soccer to stay in the game,” said the former Canadian right back. “It’s nothing like outdoor… It keeps you fit but it’s nothing like outdoor soccer.” 

In short, when asked what the biggest difference between this year’s team and the one put forth in ’86, Lenarduzzi summed it up with a very simple statement; “Players not having teams to play for” –  which is no longer a reality for Canada.

The current squad has eight players that have experience in the Champions League, meanwhile, even those who haven’t tasted the highest tier of European soccer, every member of the current men’s national team is playing for a professional club.  

“When the leading club on the roster sheet is that unknown club, those days are gone,” said Dunlop. “The measurement is now how many players do you have in the Champions League, what tier of club are they playing for,” the OneSoccer commentator continued. 

John Herdman brings winning mentality to Canada

This new-found caliber of play is one of the reasons Canada is in a good position, but the ability to impact a team isn’t something that is exclusive to the players on the pitch either. Every army needs a general and for Canada, that person is John Herdman. 

Canada’s current bench boss took over the men’s team in 2018 and completely shifted the culture of that locker room according to Dunlop.

“Canada is not at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 if John Herdman doesn’t take the coaching job in 2018.”

Brendan Dunlop of OneSoccer discusses the impact of John Herdman on Canadian soccer.

With Herdman at the helm, and the talent that is on the field, Dunlop is optimistic that Canada has a fighting chance to shock the world.

“Canada has a real opportunity here, there is the possibility of getting out of the group, four points could do it,” he said when asked what Canada’s outlook is for the group stage.

With this optimism however, he admits that history could repeat itself, with the 2022 team mirroring their 1986 counterparts. 

“I could see Canada grabbing a win against one of Croatia or Morocco and then a draw against the other… I could also see them getting zero points in the tournament, I could also see them losing all three of those games.” said the former Sportsnet Central anchor.

In Group F, Canada will face Belgium, one of the favourites to win the tournament, former World Cup finalists (2018) in Croatia, and as Dunlop puts it; “one of the strongest teams [Morocco] to come out of Africa…” 

There is definitely no easy path that lies ahead for the men in red and white but that doesn’t change the fact that they have emerged onto the international scene for the first time in generations, and are looking to make their mark, and according to Dunlop, they will – regardless of the outcome in Qatar. 

“Canada has the potential to be a real dark horse, but they will absolutely inspire and make this country proud.” 

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Posted: Nov 5 2022 1:36 pm
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