Canada was an unknown quantity before the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but captured the imagination of fans and neutrals alike, with its superb brand of football, and attacking-minded style, which thoroughly delivered one of the most entertaining matches in the first round of the group phase.
However, the result was not for their liking, as Belgium’s experience helped the European side stay calm and hit on a counterattack, taking a 1:0 win and delivering a big blow to Canada’s chances at their first edition of the FIFA World Cup since 1986.
Sure, Canada is still without a win in the world football flagship competition, but their journey has been an outstanding one, with plenty of players not even thinking about progressing to the final tournament. In fact, some of them were not even thinking about a professional career in football a few years ago.
Right back Alistair Johnston was still featuring at an amateur level in 2020, with only 30 months before deputising in this position for Canada’s national team at Qatar 2022. At age 24, he does not have the pedigree or is not so well-known as teammates Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, but has been an integrant part in Canada’s challenge for qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Nicknamed “Mr. Reliable” for his consistency, Johnston had more starts or minutes played than any other player except David in the Qualifiers for Qatar 2022. He also set a new record for Canada, featuring in 28 consecutive matches, with no other player securing so many games in a row.
But how did Johnston get here? Well, it has not been easy and it needed a lot of grit and courage for a player that moved several times in his childhood and even played some hockey, a sport that has a better farming system for young players to be brought to the limelight.
“I played hockey competitively in the winter and then soccer in the summer, and I was always known as a guy who loved to bodycheck and to hit guys. I’ve always loved the feeling of just laying someone out, as crazy as that sounds, and I just brought that attitude into soccer. I love a good tackle to this day. Nothing gets me more excited [than] if I get clattered into by an opponent or I clatter into him and it’s clean and the guy starts pushing me back. That’s something I just love,” said Johnston according to Canadian outlet Sportsnet.
Yet Canada did not have in place a proper system for young, emerging players. The right back changed several sides and was even in a tryout for French outfit Troyes AC, through his youth side, ANB Futbol, but failed to get a chance.
Returning to Canada, he attended St. John’s University for two years, before moving to Wake Forest University in 2018 in search of a bigger challenge. He did not make the cut, constantly being overlooked by coaches and described as a surplus to requirements most of the time.
Three years before representing Canada at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, he was still playing for Vaughan Azzurri, a team in Ontario League One, in the third-tier of the Canadian football pyramid. But it was there where he really impressed, in the first round of the newly expanded Canadian Championship, which featured CPL teams for the first time in 2019. Soon, Johnston was in demand.
The big break came in 2020, when his potential was identified by Nashville SC in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. It was the moment when Johnston decided that he wanted to become a football player and concentrated full time on his dream.
In just a few months, he established himself as one of the top right backs in the MLS – the professional North American football league – and with the sport’s popularity soaring in Canada due to the national team’s results, he immediately returned to his home country, being traded for $1 million to CF Montreal.
“It’s honestly been such a hectic past 24 months that there hasn’t been any time to even really sit back and think about it. It’s likely going to have to wait until after the World Cup for me to think about it and reflect on the fact I will have checked off a pretty big box that most players don’t get a chance to tick off,” added Johnston before the Qatar 2022 tournament started.
It has been a hectic three years for Johnston, who just a few years ago was starting to ponder his future in the sport, featuring in the NCAA – the College championship – and in the Canadian third league.
With amazing versatility, excellent speed, and good defending skills, he became a mainstay both at the club and at the national team level and had the honour of hearing the national anthem on the biggest of stages. He was not even born when the North American country last featured at the FIFA World Cup.