The men’s soccer match between Canada and Mexico at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton this week was a highlight for Canada. At minus 9 Celsius, with snow piled up around the field, Canada won 2-1 and climbed to the top of the regional qualifier for the World Cup.
Although Canada has long been the center of women’s football, few predicted that Canadian men would end up there. I asked Rory Smith, chief football correspondent for The Times, how this unexpected result has been obtained in other countries and what the team will have to do next.
Rory, by the way, has football newsletter… He told me that his Canadian readers email him regularly to learn more about Canadian football. If you’d like to join the cause by reading his informed take on a great game, register…
Our conversation has been edited for duration and clarity.
Could you tell us about the place of this performance of the Canadian team in the world of football?
Canada has not been to the World Cup since 1986. From a European perspective, I don’t think we necessarily expected Canada to qualify, and we definitely don’t expect Canada to be ahead of Mexico in particular.
But for a country that hasn’t been at the World Cup for so long to not only hope to qualify, but is currently in pole position, that’s quite impressive. Canada is in some ways the most amazing and possibly the most intriguing team.
Is it because the Canadian team is good or the other teams don’t know?
It seems to me that Mexico has stalled a little. They lost to the States, they lost to Canada, and they are not gaining as many points as you might expect.
The US has a team that may be good by 2026, but it looks like they have a teething problem.
Around Canada is gaining momentum, especially as they have not one but two outstanding players. Alphonso Davis and Jonathan David. Canada has definitely not produced such players before, and this is a significant change.
So Davis and David are the real deal?
Davis, definitely. From now on, Davis will be one of the best players on the planet for 10 years. He is a regular with Bayern Munich, one of the top five club teams in the world. He has already won the Champions League.
David is a little behind in his development, but he played well in the Champions League and scored several goals.
And around Davis and David, there are supporting actors who are also improving.
What is the level of coaching in Canada?
Coach John Herdman, he is English from the women’s team.
What’s really interesting about Canada is that it has long been a more visible nation of women’s football than men’s.
I don’t know the answer to this question, but I wonder how much of the lessons learned from the women’s game and the practice established by the elite nation in women’s football has been extended to the men’s side. I do not know of any other examples where a coach moved from an international women’s team to an international men’s team.
It seems to me that this should have some effect on his ability to cope even with qualifying for the tournament.
Was cold, snow and Edmonton a factor in the victory over Mexico?
Probably not so easy to play in the snow, right? But if you are in Mexico, you play at your best. If you are in Honduras, El Salvador or Costa Rica, chances are good that it will be hot and humid. In many countries around the world, the climate affects the opponents and even affects the style of play.
There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of this. Bolivia plays all of its home matches in La Paz. I played football in La Paz. It’s almost impossible because you can’t breathe.
And teams will sometimes do their best to ensure that these hostile conditions are applied whenever they can. Mexico could play in many places at sea level, but it is not.
What happens next when the qualifying game for Canada resumes at the end of January?
They have six games left in qualifying, so nothing is known yet. There is still not much room for error, because at the top it is quite dense. So it will probably come down to the last two games.
While Canada is arguably better than Honduras and El Salvador, these are not easy places to play. Conditions are difficult, the crowd is hostile. Even the USA and Mexico are fighting in these countries.
They should strive for automatic qualifications, to be in the top three that is within their grasp. And I think they would have to fail to finish below fourth. They will get a rework if they need it.
I didn’t expect them to win the world championship if they qualify – I don’t think they should get carried away with themselves. But getting there is the main thing for Canada, because it was so long ago. If you are going to the World Cup and you have a well-organized team with two outstanding players, which is similar to what Canada has, then you should not think that it will be a humiliating experience.
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austin was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has written about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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