1. Home
  2. sports
  3. news
  4. Canada's men's soccer team learned lessons from world champions France to bounce from rock bottom to a first World Cup in nearly 4 decades

Canada's men's soccer team learned lessons from world champions France to bounce from rock bottom to a first World Cup in nearly 4 decades

Barnaby Lane   

Canada's men's soccer team learned lessons from world champions France to bounce from rock bottom to a first World Cup in nearly 4 decades
  • Canada's mens team has just qualified for its first World Cup in 36 years, and only its second ever.
  • The team's success is down to embracing the ethnically diverse nature of modern Canada, experts and players say.

In January 2017, the Canadian men's national soccer team was ranked as the world's 120th best international team by FIFA, five places behind the tiny African nation of Equatorial Guinea.

Roll forward just five years and the Maples Leafs are now ranked 38th — ahead of traditionally strong soccer nations like Norway, Turkey, and the Ivory Coast — and for the first time in 36 years, Canada will hear its name called during the FIFA World Cup Draw, which will be held on Friday.

Coach John Herdman's exciting young team booked its place at this summer's tournament in Qatar on Sunday with a 4-0 win over Jamaica in what was the penultimate game of a mightily impressive qualification campaign that has seen Canada lose just two out of 14 games.

"When I first took over and I said, 'We're going to qualify for the World Cup', I don't think they believed us," Herdman, who became manager in 2018, said after the win over Jamaica.

"I think this country never believed in us because we've given them nothing to believe in. They believe now."

French connection

The Canada team that will travel to Qatar in November is very different to the squad in the years before Herdman took over, picking players from across Canada's hugely diverse set of demographics to great effect.

Of those who played for the Reds in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, only a few remain in the current 23-man roster. Midfielder Atiba Hutchinson is now the captain, Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies — who was 16 at the time — remains the team's talisman, and Milan Borjan has kept his place as first choice goalkeeper.

Junior Hoilett, Jonathan Osorio, Sam Adekugbe, and Lucas Cavallini also remain as regular features in the squad.

Surrounding those veterans now, however, is a group of fresh, younger players, handpicked by Herdman. Importantly, many of those youngsters could have chosen to represent different countries.

Striker Jonathan David, who has scored 17 times for LOSC Lille this season, was born in New York and spent his formative years in Haiti, while fellow forward Iké Ugbo was born and raised in the UK.

Midfielder Stephen Eustáquio represented Portugal as a junior, teenager Ismaël Koné was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Cyle Larin is eligible for Jamaica through his parents.

Star-player Davies, who is still only 21, was born in the Buduburam refugee camp near Ghana's capital, Accra.

"Not everyone's actually Canadian, like, Canadian Canadian on the team," Canada international Theo Corbeanu, who played for Romania as a youth, told Insider.

"If you look at the team, we all have different backgrounds, and many come from places where football was the main sport for them growing up.

"For example, my parents are immigrants, and my family always loved football, never played it, but loved it. So I grew up watching it, and most of the team has that, you know, they've already been brought up in that culture. That's why this group is so special."

Fielding players born outside of the country or who could have represented other nations is a tried-and-tested method of finding success on the field in international soccer.

France's 2018 World Cup-winning national team is the strongest example of that. 20 of France's 23-man squad at the tournament were either immigrants — for example Samuel Umtiti, Thomas Lemar, and Steve Mandanda — or the children of immigrants, such as Kylian Mbappe, whose mother is Algerian and father is Cameroonian.

Canada has the eighth largest immigrant population in the world, with foreign-born people making up about one-fifth of the country's 38 million populace.

A large proportion of that immigrant population has ancestry that traces its roots back to France and Africa. French colonists settled in Quebec, formerly known as New France, in the 17th century and later brought African slaves to the colony with the permission of King Louis XIV.

In the 19th century, thousands of enslaved African migrants then came to Canada from the United States by way of the "Underground Railroad" — a network of secret routes and safe houses used to escape the slave trade south of the border.

Dennis Marciniak, a sports reporter and photographer based in Toronto, says that despite the troubling means by which many of Canada's immigrant population came to the country, the national soccer team is now reaping the benefits, just like France.

"Having Canadian players born outside of Canada has helped tremendously," said Marciniak, who himself is an immigrant from Poland.

"Canada is a country of immigrants where it is encouraged to retain the heritage and traditions of your homeland, which I felt first hand growing up here.

"Many players had an option to represent Canada or their country of origin. In the past, most would choose to represent their home nation, but Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies are part of the first generation to stick with Canada and that will only open the door for others.

"The roster being full of international last names couldn't be more quintessentially Canadian."

American influence

For a long time, the US was best known as the destination of choice for soccer superstars who were coming to the end of their careers.

That reputation started with Pelé joining the New York Cosmos in 1975, which prompted European icons such as Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore, and George Best to cross the Atlantic.

After the formation of Major League Soccer in 1996, America's renown for being a retirement home only grew, especially following David Beckham's high profile move to Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007.

In recent years, however, that reputation has shifted and the division has now become something of a feeder league for Europe.

The launch of a league-wide academy system, investment from wealthy owners, increased supporter interest, and restructured league rules, most notably the Designated Player rule — which effectively caps the number of overseas stars MLS teams can field — have all helped the league discover, shape, and eventually sell on American prospects.

A number of Americans playing in Europe's top leagues, like Tyler Adams, Giovanni Reyna, and Weston McKennie, started their careers in the MLS.

Fortunately for Canada, MLS' growth has coincided with the addition of Canadian teams to the league — first Toronto FC in 2007, then Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011, and lastly CF Montreal in 2012.

All three have benefited from the improvement of MLS and have been able to produce some notable exports of their own, including Corbeanu and Davies.

Seeing Canadians shine in the MLS has also prompted European clubs to go fishing at clubs operating in Canada's own leagues. Jonathan David, for example, was plucked from local side Ottawa Internationals by Belgian club Genk before he moved on to Lille.

"MLS is a big part of why the Canadian team has evolved the way it has," said Corbeanu, adding that the success of former MLS stars in Europe has acted as a catalyst for the rest of the team to improve.

"When I came into the team in 2020, there was this crazy hype around certain players and I think that got everyone going and got most of the team motivated.

"When you see someone like Alphonso Davies, who went from Vancouver to Bayern and won a Champions League, everyone then like set out a plan that we're going to change this programme around and now that it's happened, it's insane."

Marciniak says that MLS has also helped increase the popularity of soccer in Canada, which in-turn allowed for the establishment of the Canadian Premier League in 2019.

The CPL aims to develop Canadian talent by having a minimum number of Canadian players on each team's roster, and an annual draft of players from Canadian universities.

"MLS has had a massive impact on Canada's success," said Marciniak.

"Not only has MLS raised awareness that the soccer is being played professionally, and locally at a lower level, but it has also helped to provide the amazing infrastructure the national team enjoys today.

"Without MLS, I do not believe the Canadian Premier League would be viable in its current form."


Canada making use of its immigrant population and the infrastructure provided by MLS has without doubt helped make the team the strongest it's been in decades.

However, strong teams don't always succeed. Just look at European Championship winner Italy, which failed to qualify for Qatar.

Sometimes the best teams are just that, the best teams — a group so tightly knit that the big hurdles become small hurdles and the impossible becomes possible.

Canada is a prime example and on the pitch the group's togetherness is clear to see.

Against Jamaica, left-back Adekugbe sprinted forward on almost every attack, desperate to help his team clinch the goals that would send them to Qatar. Each time playmaker Eustáquio had possession and lifted his head, he had three or four options screaming for the ball. Tajon Buchanan, Hoillet, David, and Larin pressed ferociously from the front, and when Jamaica did manage a rare shot on goal, goalkeeper Borjan screamed at his defenders to do better.

When the final whistle went and Canada's place in Qatar was confirmed, Herdman and the coaching staff stormed the pitch to embrace the players, some of whom dropped to their knees in tears.

"Around the team, everyone believes in this brotherhood," said Corbeanu. "We say it so often, but it's not just the saying, everyone really believes it.

"It's a group full of good people and everyone respects each other so much. The biggest thing about the success of the team is who the people are and how they are as people, first of all, that's the most important thing.

"At the end of the day, if everyone has each other's respect and there are no individuals, then it's bound to be a good team."

As for how Canada will fare in Qatar, Corbeanu, who hopes to be at the tournament himself, believes the team could pull off something special.

"I think there's going to be a massive, massive surprise coming up," he said.

Canada will be hoping, at the least, to improve its result from the country's only previous World Cup in 1986, when the team lost all three games and failed to score a single goal.

The Maple Leafs will find out their Qatar schedule Friday when the World Cup draw takes place in the country's capital, Doha.


Popular Right Now