World Cup 2022: Canada boss John Herdman says he will be pinching himself in Qatar

Tajon Buchanan celebrates after scoring in the 4-0 win over Jamaica which saw Canada reach their first men's World Cup in 36 years
Tajon Buchanan celebrates after scoring in the 4-0 win over Jamaica which saw Canada reach their first men’s World Cup in 36 years
Host nation: Qatar Dates: November 20-December 18 Coverages: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-by-day TV listingsFull coverage details

John Herdman admits that, just for a second, he will need to pinch himself when he sends his Canada side out to face Belgium in their first men’s World Cup finals game in 36 years.

Taking on the team ranked second in the world, which includes the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, is a tough task, even when your own squad includes Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, two of the top young talents playing in Europe.

But consider Herdman’s background.

A 47-year-old from the north-east steelmaking town of Consett, with no playing background, who only got into coaching when he took charge of a local under-11 team as part of his Duke of Edinburgh award when he was a teenager and emigrated to New Zealand in his 20s when he realized there was no chance he would be given an opportunity in the professional game in England.

“I will pinch myself,” Herdman says of Canada’s Group Opener at the 44,000-capacity Al-Rayyan Stadium on 23 November.

In New Zealand, Herdman moved from being a coach education manager to taking charge of the women’s national side, where he began to build his reputation. Then he was on to Canada, where he led the women’s team to successive bronze medals at the Olympics, before switching to the men’s game and securing the country’s second World Cup appearance.

He accepts his unconventional journey brings an element of imposter syndrome. But Herdman doesn’t feel it is exclusive to him.

“Everyone suffers with this at some point,” he said.

“I remember first flying into Vancouver thinking I was going to be at a training session with the greatest of all time in her craft, Christine Sinclair, and that I’d never worked with that type of athlete before and how was I going to do it?

“But I was listening to a podcast where Hugh Jackman spoke about imposter syndrome. I just thought if Wolverine can have it, I can too! I’m not ashamed to admit it and I’m sure I will feel that way when De Bruyne walks past.

“But if you’re willing to admit that stuff, you work harder to fill the gaps and innovate.”

Canada boss John Herdman celebrates a goal against Jamaica in a World Cup qualifying game
John Herdman was born in Consett, County Durham, and is a former coach at Sunderland’s youth academy

Canada’s progress to Qatar was smoother on the field than off it.

A dispute in June over payments forced a friendly with Panama to be scrapped at short notice and while matches have taken place since, the relationship between Herdman and his squad and Canada Soccer remains uneasy.

For anything to take the focus away from Herdman’s squad is a shame.

That he switched from the women’s team to the men’s was hugely controversial in Canada. To then declare a belief his team would qualify for Qatar was bold.

“You must commit the mind to go all in,” he said. “I’d always been clear that we’d podium with the women’s team. With the men’s, no-one had ever said ‘we’re going to qualify’ before. One of the senior guys said ‘you’ve put a noose around your neck’. My response to that was ‘good’. If I commit the mind, the players will see that – and the process, the systems and the play style – and they will believe.”

It was probably not until matchday eight of a 14-game final qualifying group that it became apparent Canada had a realistic chance of making their first World Cup since 1986.

Sergei Rodionov of the USSR holds the ball up against Gerry Gray of Canada at the 1986 World Cup
Canada reached the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico, where they lost to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union

In front of 44,000 on a freezing but memorable night in Edmonton, in a game dubbed ‘Iceteca’, when the temperature at kick-off was -9C and snow had to be cleared from the pitch to allow it to go ahead, Canada beat Mexico 2-1. It was their first qualification win against El Tri since 1976 and took them to the top of the group, a position they were never to lose.

“Concacaf teams will do anything to qualify but we would literally roll out the red carpet for teams,” said Herdman.

“But it’s our terrain. We can control that and change the mentality. When we go to Mexico, we go into altitude, in the Aztecs, with the heat. So when Mexico came here, it was on a plastic pitch and -13 at one point. There is a phrase ‘getting Concacaf-ed’. Well, we did it to Mexico for the first time.”

Canada’s comfort blanket comes from the knowledge their appearance in Qatar should not be a one-off. They are one of three co-hosts – along with the USA and Mexico – for the 2026 tournament and are expected to be awarded a place automatically by the world governing body Fifa.

Nevertheless, doing better than in 1986, when they failed to score a goal or get a point, is demanded.

That shouldn’t be too difficult, especially as Bayern Munich’s Davies has recovered from the heart issue that kept him out for three months at the start of the year.

Davies is unquestionably the pin-up boy of Canadian football. And Herdman thinks the 22-year-old can be a major influence on the development of the game in a country he has called home since 2005, when he arrived as a refugee after his parents di lui fled war-torn Liberia, initially for Ghana where he was born.

“He’s been the game-changer,” said Herdman. “He symbolizes the new Canada.

“Many people in Canada can’t find an outlet so Alphonso has become the portal for them to express themselves and enjoy football.

“He’s a generational talent. He’s special.”

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