So maybe it wasn’t the best idea for Canada’s men’s soccer coach to share what he said to his team after they dropped their World Cup opener to Belgium.
“I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and [expletive] Croatia,” John Herdman said. “That’s as simple as it gets.”
The response from the other side Sunday was equally as simple: Croatia 4, Canada 1.
“In the end Croatia demonstrated who [expletive] whom,” declared striker Andrej Kramarić, who scored twice as his colleagues came back from a second-minute shock in Al Rayyan to oust the Canadians.
It was a harsh tutorial for our northern neighbors, who were making their first appearance in the planetary festival of feet since 1986.
But it also was a part of the continuing education of a hockey country that has taken a huge step forward on the football front during the last quadrennium.
The Canadians topped the table in CONCACAF regional qualifying, beating the Mexicans and Americans at home and drawing with them on the road.
Tossed into a brutal group that included the second- and third-place finishers from 2018, Canada performed creditably in a 1-0 loss to the Belgians and hung in with the Croatians until the final 20 minutes.
“We did our best,” said Canadian star Alphonso Davies, who put his mates ahead in the second minute. “We fought the entire game.”
The Canadians, who were blanked three times in their initial appearance 36 years ago, made history this time just by scoring. For a giddy half-hour after Davies knocked in a header to finish off his team’s first upfield rush it seemed possible that the Canucks could pull off yet another surprise in a tournament that already has produced a half-dozen.
But once Croatia settled down and produced goals by Kramarić and Marko Livaja eight minutes apart before halftime, the underdogs were on their back foot for the duration.
The Croats simply had too much skill, too much tactical savvy, too much experience under duress to be held at bay for 90 minutes.
“We got back on our feet,” said coach Zlatko Dalic, whose checkerboard-clad charges can advance with a draw against Belgium on Thursday. “This makes me proud. Croatia once again demonstrated power and quality.”
What irked Dalic most when he heard Herdman’s comment was the cheeky disregard from a rival that had watched the previous eight Cups on television.
“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone,” Dalic said. “This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect.”
The Croatians, after all, have qualified for five of the last six tournaments. Last time, they knocked out the Danes and Russians in shootouts and beat the English in extra time to reach the final, where they gave the French a spirited go until the final half-hour.
This year, Croatia won its UEFA Nations League group by beating and drawing with France and arrived in Qatar with only one defeat in its previous 17 matches. So a bit of acknowledgment might have been in order.
“You have the mouth,” read the headline in a Zagreb tabloid that ran a front-page photo spoof of a naked Herdman with maple leaves in strategic places. “But do you have the [expletive] as well?”
Herdman’s guys hung in gamely but were clearly overmatched as the day proceeded. The Canadian midfielders and defenders scrambled to get in position as the Croats passed them dizzy, looking for an unmarked attacker.
Kramaric was unattended when he equalized in the 36th minute, drilling a shot to the far side. Then Livaja slipped his mark when he put the Croatians ahead a minute before intermission.
That’s also when the Canadians gave up the goal to Belgium after Michy Batshuayi caught up with a long ball. A moment’s inattention at the wrong time brings quick punishment at this level.
The United States, which brought a bunch of young pros from domestic leagues to Italy in 1990 after four decades in the global wilderness, took a 5-1 flogging from the Czechs in its first foray.
Over time the Americans improved, helped by the creation of Major League Soccer and growing numbers of players in Europe’s top leagues.
So has it been for the Canadians. Their 1986 roster was peopled with indoor soccer denizens. This one has players competing in a dozen countries. Davies is a stalwart for Bayern Munich and Jonathan David drew a $35 million transfer fee when he joined Lille.
The Canadian Premier League, launched three years ago, will augment the talent pool just as MLS has done for the Americans. The next Cup, in 2026, which will be spread around North America, will bring the same heightened awareness of the sport in Canada that the 1994 tournament did in the States.
This tournament has been about planting the Maple Leaf banner where it hadn’t been in decades and about the Canadians playing with grit and gumption even in defeat.
“We weren’t afraid of anybody,” said defender Steven Vitória. “We kept pushing forward, trying to play that attacking style. We’re proud of that.”
The Canucks may be out of contention but they still can jumble their group in their finale with Morocco, which stunned the Belgians 2-0. And they’ve made the point that they came to the Middle East to make.
“We showed little Canada can compete with the best in the world,” said Herdman.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.