After surviving and surprising on a marathon 20-game World Cup qualifying journey, Canada will learn Friday what awaits this November in Qatar.
Whoever they face from Friday’s draw in Doha, the Canadian men will be treated with respect after finishing atop the CONCACAF qualifying final round robin and compiling an impressive 14-2-4 record across three rounds en route to soccer’s showcase.
Coach John Herdman said Canada’s successful qualifying campaign, which included wins over the traditional CONCACAF powerhouses Mexico and the U.S. “has to turn a head.”
“These are two top-15 nations that Canada has finished ahead of,” he added. “And we did it (playing) nearly half of this campaign without our No. 1 player (Alphonso Davies) — the best left back, the best left-winger, in my opinion, in the world.”
The Bayern Munich star hasn’t played for Canada since November after a bout of COVID lead to signs of myocarditis, a mild heart inflammation in early January. The 21-year-old from Edmonton is now back in training with Bayern.
And whatever happens in Qatar, Herdman says his team will emerge better for it.
“This World Cup campaign 2022 will lay one hell of a foundation for 2026 (when Canada co-hosts with the U.S. and Mexico),” Herdman said after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss in Panama. “And we can go into this World Cup with absolutely no fear.
“No one really expects Canada to go and win it. I don’t think many people would expect us to get out of the (first-round) group. If you’d asked people four years (ago), they didn’t even think we were going to be there.”
Herdman will watch the draw from a TV studio in Toronto. He did not travel to Doha because the timeline was too tight to get there after Wednesday’s game in Panama City.
Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis and chief marketing officer Sandra Gage will be in Doha where the 72nd FIFA Congress is taking place in conjunction with the draw.
Asked about his team’s chances in Qatar, Herdman said he expects Canadians to be “realistic.”
“I’ll never say this is about going and participating. This is absolutely going and competing,” he said. “But I’ve been on enough of these experiences to know you have to have been at one to really compete at one. You have to have experienced it to really understand it.
“And I’ve experienced a home World Cup. I’ve experienced World Cups in Germany, I’ve experienced World Cups in China. And had those experiences to know it takes time. And these boys, they’re going to go and enjoy it. The country’s going to go and enjoy it. And our mission from Day 1 was to score the first goal that Canada’s ever scored (at the men’s World Cup), to win our first-ever point and hopefully to win our first ever game, to qualify out of the group. And just to keep defying the odds.
“And that’s it. That’s all we can ask of this team. And if they’re enjoying themselves, playing with no fear, anything’s possible.”
Bookmaker William Hill has Canada at 250-1 to win the World Cup.
The Canadians dropped five places to No. 38 in the latest FIFA rankings after losses in Costa Rica and Panama but remain on the right track. Herdman says his team has gained valuable experience but believes more is needed on the club front.
Herdman, who leaves little to chance, said history has shown that teams need a minimum” of six players with top teams in the top five leagues in the world (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) to progress out of the first round.
He pointed to the likes of Davies, Jonathan David (Lille, France), Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade, Serbia) and Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson (both Besiktas, Turkey).
“Those are the guys that have that Champions League experience. They’ve played in hostile environments. They understand the pressures and the scrutiny of top games,” he said. “And we’re building that. We’re really building that as a team.
“By the time we get to Qatar, we’re hoping Tajon (Buchanan) is playing some Champions League matches (with Belgium’s Club Brugge) at the end of this year as experience. And we’re hoping some of these boys get an opportunity to play in (the) Europa (League) and Champions League game.”
And on the plus side, Herdman says the Canadian men have youth on their side for both the 2022 and ‘26 World Cup.
“Where we’ve got it right (is) we’ve got the generational pool that isn’t going away now for the next 10 years. That’s the beauty for Canada.”
Friday’s draw will involve four pots filled with teams by ranking. Host Qatar and the top seven ranked teams will make up Pot 1 with the next eight highest-ranked teams in Pot 2 and so on.
At No. 38, Canada will be in Pot 4 along with No. 37 Cameroon, No. 46 Ecuador, No. 49 Saudi Arabia and No. 60 Ghana.
The other three spots in Pot 4 will be filled out by the winners of the two intercontinental playoffs (Australia/United Arab Emirates/Peru or New Zealand/Costa Rica) and the final UEFA qualifier (Ukraine/Scotland/Wales).
The eight first-round groups will have no more than one nation from any confederation, with the exception of Europe due to the number of UEFA qualifiers.
Canada could conceivably be drawn with the likes of No. 1 Brazil, the 10th-ranked Netherlands and No. 20 Senegal. Or it could end in a pool with No. 51 Qatar, No. 16 Croatia and No. 35 Tunisia.
The opening group stage will last 12 days, from Nov. 21 to Dec. 2 with the winners and runners-up moving on to the round of 16.
In 1986, Canada was drawn with France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Friday’s draw will feature a global lineup of football royalty with Cafu (Brazil), Lothar Matthaus (Germany), Adel Ahmed MalAllah (Qatar), Ali Daei (Iran), Bora Milutinovic (Serbia/Mexico), Jay-Jay Okocha (Nigeria), Rabah Madjer (Algeria) and Tim Cahill (Australia) assisting at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center.
American star Carli Lloyd and former England player Jermaine Jenas will also take part.
Pots for Qatar 2022 Draw (with FIFA ranking)
Pot 1: Qatar (No. 51, host nation), Brazil (1), Belgium (2), France (3), Argentina (4), England (5), Spain (7), Portugal (8)
Pot 2: Mexico (9), Netherlands (10), Denmark (11), Germany (12), Uruguay (13), Switzerland (14) U.S. (15), Croatia (16).
Pot 3: Senegal (20), Iran (21), Japan (22), Morocco (24), Serbia (25), Poland (26), South Korea (29), Tunisia (35).
Pot 4: Cameroon (37), Canada (38), Ecuador (46), Saudi Arabia (49), Ghana (60), winner of intercontinental playoff (Australia, 42, or United Arab Emirates, 68 versus Peru, 22), winner of intercontinental playoff (Costa Rica, 31, versus New Zealand, 101), winner of European playoff (Wales, 18, versus either Scotland, 39, or Ukraine, 27).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press