World Cup berth for Canadian men another defining moment in the evolution of a soccer country

On the eve of history, the night before the Canadian men’s soccer team secured its first World Cup appearance in more than 36 years, midfielder Stephen Eustáquio said his squad was the best in the region.

“And we have to start acting like it, because we worked for it. And if we work for it, we just have to embrace it,” he said.

The country officially put itself on the soccer map Sunday, clinching a spot in this year’s World Cup in Qatar with a thorough 4-0 win over Jamaica at BMO Field.

It was their most dominant performance of all the qualifying matches, with Cyle Larin, Tajon Buchanan and Junior Hoilett scoring before Jamaica added an own goal in the dying seconds. The crowd broke into “O Canada” as the clock ticked down.

Referee Fernando Guerrero didn’t bother with injury time. Canada had waited long enough.

Sunday’s performance was ultimately a sidebar to a bigger, defining moment for the sport in this country. As the Canadians indeed started to act like the best team in the CONCACAF region, winning 18 of 19 matches overall since the World Cup cycle began last year, Canada — which also celebrated women’s soccer gold at the Tokyo Olympics — has evolved into a soccer country , embracing the team in its pursuit.

“I know from the outside… looking in, it kind of seemed like a pipe dream,” said defender Alistair Johnston. “It seemed like (coach John Herdman) was selling some fairy dust… Throughout this group, there’s been this confidence that we could do it. Now to really show the rest of the world that it wasn’t just make believe, it was reality, it’s a pretty special moment.”

A loss in Costa Rica on Thursday, in a match that could have clinched a World Cup spot, set up Sunday’s opportunity to seal the deal at home in a stadium where they have never lost.

The squad was chomping at the bit to get back on the field, and fans were in full roar in support. Compare that to last September, when the crowd for the opener of the final round of qualifying at BMO Field and split between Canadian supporters and those cheering for Honduras.

Torontonians woke up to blistering winds and snow squalls off the lake, but the patio was full of Canadian soccer fans at Local restaurant in Liberty Village two hours before kickoff, with dozens more lined up to get in there and at other pubs nearby to catch the action. Hundreds more — armed with smoke bombs, streamers and every song in the supporters’ group songbook — lined the road behind barricades as the team bus arrived at the stadium.

“This is a legit football country,” coach John Herdman said on the field post-game, amid the chaotic celebration.

At game time, BMO Field was at full capacity: 29,122, its largest attendance for a Canadian men’s match.

The game hit every note for a moment, and the crowd never missed a cue. Larin’s opener came early and the Canadian fans celebrated like a win was a foregone conclusion.

Goalkeeper Milan Borjan only had to make one save all game, but it drew a raucous cheer. Of course I made the save. Canada has conceded the fewest goals in qualifying, with one match to go in Panama on Wednesday. And of course Buchanan and Hoilett scored. Canada has the most goals in the region in final qualifying.

“This is a legit football country,” Herdman said on the field post-game, amid the chaotic celebration. “(Clinching will) change the country forever, our sport forever, and we’ve got to capture this moment.”

Behind the scenes, Herdman held his pre-game team meeting in the Raptors locker room at nearby Scotiabank Arena. The players received Raptors jerseys with their names on them, and Herdman showed clips emphasizing how their 2019 NBA championship had galvanized the country. He reminded players that a team had sat in that room three years early and made a decision to change its sport forever. He told them they had a similar decision to make Sunday evening.

“I didn’t really talk tactics. It was about them choosing,” Herdman said. “It was poignant. It was a special moment. The goosebumps were there.”

Players and fans alike lingered when the final whistle blew, celebrating the moment together.

A post-game ceremony featuring some of the legends who weren’t able to achieve such success in the past — Dwayne De Rosario and Julian de Guzman, Craig Forrest and Paul Stalteri and David Edgar — allowed those pillars of the program to experience the joy as well.

Canadian star Alphonso Davies, who watched from Germany as he continues to recover from a heart ailment, broke down in tears at the final whistle — shared on his Twitch feed. Meanwhile, Jonathan Osorio, who has called BMO Field home with Toronto FC, tried to put the moment into words through chattering teeth in the sub-zero weather.

“As a Canadian kid, to dream of something like this was impossible,” he said, before stationing himself by the sideline heater to warm up. “To see it come to this, it’s incredible.”

Back in the dressing room, space in the hot tub was a hot commodity. Goggles went on and the champagne was flowing, as were the beers in the showers. Herdman was in full kit; Johnston couldn’t say why.

This could have been different. Canada could have clinched in Costa Rica late Thursday, after most Canadians had gone to bed. Instead, on Sunday afternoon, both the team and its supporters got to celebrate in style.

Like the best teams in the region do. Like World Cup teams do. Like soccer nations do.

“I’m just so pleased we didn’t win in Costa Rica,” Herdman said. “I am so pleased. This is how it was meant to be.

“I know why the football gods wouldn’t let us score (on Thursday). It was for tonight.”


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