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The rise of Canada: John Herdman created a powerhouse in the making, ready for the World Cup in Qatar

In the 2009 book “Soccernomics,” authors Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper describe Canada as one of the perennial underachievers in world football, analyzing the popularity of the sport, the number of children that take up the sport, and the wealth of opportunities in regard to their participation at the FIFA World Cup.

Indeed, the only time Canada had previously qualified for the world football flagship event was in 1986, when they crashed out after the preliminary round, with losses against the Soviet Union, France, and Hungary. Back then, Canada failed to score one goal and they never came close to returning to the FIFA World Cup.

36 years later, when plenty of the current Canadian fans did not see their team playing on the biggest of stages, the team is back in the tournament, with a young, energetic team, which will probably be one of the underdogs to watch and the fan’s favourite at Qatar 2022.

The question is why and the answer is simple: generational talents like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who made their mark in the top European leagues, are brimming with confidence, shining for their national team, which has been unstoppable in the CONCACAF Qualifiers for Qatar 2022, winning the group in style, ahead of more battle-tested teams like Mexico and the United States of America.

Only Qatar – who are debutants – and Wales, who are also on their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup, have played fewer matches in the history of the competition than Canada, who have also been dealt a difficult hand at the draw for the group phase, facing Belgium, Croatia and Morocco in Group F.

“When Belgium and Croatia came out of the hat, we were just rubbing our hands, saying, ‘This is going to be an amazing experience. We want to create freedom and have them go in against the De Bruynes, Lukakus, Modrics and relish that chance of pushing their limits against these immortals of the game. As a coach, I know that I’ll either be a hero or a zero,” said Canada’s coach, John Herdman, according to FIFA.

But Herdman is far from a zero, rather a hero in Canada, after taking the team to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. Indeed, his story has been nothing short of special, identified by pundits and players together as the driving force behind Canada’s resurgence over the last five years.

One year before Herdman was appointed as Canada’s coach, the team was ranked 117th in the FIFA standings. When he did take over, the North American side had already jumped into 94th place. Now, after four years, Herdman took Canada to their best-ever position in the monthly FIFA rankings, the 33rd place.

A former Physical Education teacher, Herdman is a true globetrotter. After spending some time as the development coach for the English side Sunderland, he traveled across the Globe, to take over the New Zealand women’s national team. After five years there, the Englishman moved over to Canada, in another mindboggling decision, and spent seven years coaching the women’s national team, before finally committing to men’s football, after securing the bronze medal at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

“I’ve never had anything handed to me easy. I’ve never lived that professional life. I’ve had to fight for everything, every opportunity, and you had to fight to keep it. That fight is something I tried to manifest in the environments you work in. It starts with that. There’s a human will to go on and get somewhere better, and that’s right at the core of what the players have understood about working with us,” said Herdman for ESPN.

Indeed, the English coach has been widely hailed by his players, which underlined his approach to creating a “brotherhood” in the team, mixing an aging core of veterans like Atiba Hutchinson with the exuberance of players like Davies and David.

The last two are just special products from a country that did not even organize a domestic league before 2019, with several teams playing in the MLS. This was one of the reasons that Canada’s young players, who were featured in a “pay to play” system did not really get going, with talents falling through the cracks.

There were no idols, no teams to make the next step to whenever they grew up, so plenty had to leave the country and enrol in other teams to keep their dreams going. Davies was one of them, being plucked from the MLS franchise Vancouver Whitecaps by Bayern Munchen and starring for the German team where he won the UEFA Champions League in 2020.

Now, children have their idols and can continue their quest to become better and better, with their own domestic league and a more professional setting where they can thrive.

The success of Davies, David, Hutchinson, and other stars like Milan Borjan, who has been an integrant part of the team, is now inspiring tens of thousands to take up football – by far the most popular sport to play in Canada – and try to emulate their idols.

And Herdman?

“We’re going to be first to things. That’s a mentality I adopted in my early 20s. I’m going to be first in as many things as are in my grasp. Over time, it becomes part of this team’s identity that we want to be the first team to qualify out of CONCACAF, we want to be the first team to go undefeated, we want to be the first team to be top at the Christmas period, we want to be the first to keep X amount of clean sheets,” concluded Canada’s coach.

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