Canada Football World Cup: John Herdman confesses that, just for a second. He will need to pinch himself when he guides his Canada side out to face Belgium in their first gentlemen’s World Cup finals game in 36 years.
Taking on the team ranked second in the world. Which comprises the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku, is a tough task. Even when your team includes Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, two of the top young aptitudes playing in Europe.
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But consider Herdman’s background.
A 47-year-old from the north-east steelmaking town of Consett, with no playing context, only got into training. When he took charge of a local under-11 team as a share of his Duke of Edinburgh award when he was a teen-age and emigrated to New Zealand in his 20s when he realized there was no chance he would be given a chance in the professional game in England.
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“I will pinch myself,” Herdman says of Canada’s Group F opener at the 44,000-ability Al-Rayyan Stadium on 23 November.
In New Zealand, Herdman moved from being a coach education director to taking charge of the women’s national side. Where he began to build his standing. Then it was on to Canada, where he led the women’s team to consecutive bronze medals at the Olympics. Before switching to the men’s game and securing the country’s second Football World Cup arrival.
He accepts his unconventional journey brings an element of the phony syndrome. But Herdman doesn’t feel it is exclusive to him.
“Everyone suffers with this at some point,” he said.
“I remember first flying into Vancouver thinking I was going to be at an exercise session with the greatest of all time in her craft, Christine Sinclair, and that I’d never functioned with that type of athlete before and how was I going to do it?
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“But I was listening to a podcast where Hugh Jackman spoke about imposter syndrome. I just thought if Wolverine can have it, I can too! I’m not ashamed to admit it and I’m sure I will feel that way when De Bruyne walks past.
“But if you’re willing to admit that stuff, you work harder to fill the gaps and innovate.”
Canada’s progress to Qatar was smoother on the field than off it.
A dispute in June over expenditures forced a friendly with Panama to be scrapped at short notice and while matches have taken place since the association between Herdman and his squad and Canada Soccer leftovers uneasy. To know more about Croatia Vs Canada Tickets click here.
For anything to take the focus away from Herdman’s squad is a shame.
That he switched from the women’s team to the men’s was hugely controversial in Canada. To then declare a belief his team would qualify for Qatar was bold.
“You must commit the mind to go all in,” he said. “I’d always been clear that we’d podium with the women’s team. With the men’s, no one had ever said ‘we’re going to qualify before. One of the senior guys said ‘you’ve put a noose around your neck my response to that was ‘good’. If I commit the mind, the players will see that – and the process, the systems, and the play style – and they will believe.”
It was probably not until Matchday eight of a 14-game final qualifying group. That it became apparent Canada had a realistic chance of making their first World Cup since 1986.
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In front of 44,000 on a freezing but memorable night in Edmonton, in a game dubbed ‘Iceteca’. When the temperature at kick-off was -9C and snow had to be cleared from the pitch to allow it to go ahead. Canada beat Mexico 2-1. It was their first qualification win against El Tri since 1976 and took them to the top of the group, a position they were never to lose.
“Concacaf teams will do anything to qualify but we would roll out the red carpet for teams,” said Herdman.
“But it’s our terrain. We can control that and change the mentality. When we go to Mexico, we go into altitude, in the Azteca, with the heat. So when Mexico came here, it was on a plastic pitch and -13 at one point. There is a phrase ‘getting Concacaf-ed’. Well, we did it to Mexico for the first time.”
Canada’s comfort blanket comes from the knowledge their appearance in Qatar should not be a one-off. They are one of three co-hosts – along with the USA and Mexico – for the 2026 tournament and are expected to be awarded a place automatically by the world governing body Fifa.
Nevertheless, doing better than in 1986,
Nevertheless, doing better than in 1986, when they failed to score a goal or get a point, is demanded.
That should not be too difficult, especially as Bayern Munich’s Davies has recovered from the heart issue that kept him out for three months at the start of the year.
Davies is unquestionably the pin-up boy of Canadian football. And Herdman thinks the 22-year-old can be a major influence on the development of the game in a country he has called home since 2005. When he arrived as a refugee after his parents fled war-torn Liberia, initially for Ghana, where he was born.
“He’s been the game-changer,” said Herdman. “He symbolizes the new Canada.
“Many people in Canada can’t find an outlet so Alphonso has become the portal for them to express themselves and enjoy football.
“He’s a generational talent. He’s special.”
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