Later this month, Canadian soccer fans will officially see a 36-year wait come to an end when the men’s national team plays in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Team Canada, which made the World Cup following their impressive performances in continental qualification competitions, is being led by star players like Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Jonathan David and Stephen Eustáquio, to name a few.
This men’s team is unlike any that Canadian soccer journalist John Molinaro says he has seen before. They’re “fearless,” he said, but despite this golden generation of emerging Canadian talent, the players are in for a “really steep” challenge when the competition kicks off.
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That challenge is taking on European heavyweights Belgium and Croatia, and then top African team Morocco in the group stage of the tournament, said Molinaro, who is also the founder and editor of TFCRepublic.ca. At the end of group competition, the top two teams will advance to the knockout rounds of the 32-country tournament.
Here’s a look the nations Canada will be facing when the men’s FIFA World Cup kicks off on Nov. 20.
Canada’s first game in the World Cup will be on Nov. 23 against Belgium, which is ranked No. 2 in FIFA men’s rankings for international teams.
Belgium is a nation stacked with global talent, including star players like forward Romelu Lukaku and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who play on some of biggest club teams in the world. Belgium made the semifinals in 2018 and quarter-finals in 2014, but fell short to their opponents.
Belgium is a team at the “end of a golden generation” that will be feeling the pressure to perform, said Craig Forrest, a soccer analyst and former Canadian men’s national team goalkeeper. Despite their aging star players, Belgium will be a significant threat, he said.
“They have immense quality. They are aging a little bit, but they do have some great young pieces too,” Forrest told Global News.
“They have this revolving door (of talent) at the moment … but they are a side that are expected to do really well, so there’s a lot of pressure on Belgium to perform at this World Cup with the quality that they have in their team and they have a lot of depth.”
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In World Cup qualifying, Belgium finished first in their group with six wins and two draws, scoring 25 goals over eight games and only conceding six.
“They have players, the calibre of Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne – these are players who are among the best at their positions in the world,” Molinaro told Global News.
“This is a tough test for Canada right out of the gate to play the No. 2 nation in the world who four years ago in Russia at the World Cup reached the semifinals.”
After playing Belgium, Canada will face Croatia on Nov. 27.
Croatia made headlines in their performance at the 2018 World Cup after making the finals, only to lose to France 4-2. The team was led by world-class midfielder Luka Modrić, who despite his age of 37, is currently “playing like a 17-year-old,” said Forrest.
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“He looks as good as ever. He’s moving the ball really well. He’s controlling games,” he said.
“He’s absolutely still at the top of his game.”
Only five of the 11 players who started the 2018 final are still on the team, but Croatia’s rebuild melts together that experienced core with a talented new generation.
Croatia, which finished top of their qualification group with seven wins, two draws and one loss on 21 goals scored and four against, likes to keep control of the ball and dictate the tempo of the game, said Molinaro.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how Canada sort of deals with that, how it sort of manages to break down Croatia, how it manages to win that sort of midfield battle because I think that’s going to be key for the game against the Croats,” he said.
“And just how it deals with Croatia’s quality because they’re like Belgium: they have players of top quality and top class pretty much at every position.”
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Croatia sits in the 12th spot on FIFA’s men’s national team rankings.
Morocco, which is playing in their sixth World Cup after making its first appearance in 1970, will face Canada on Dec. 1.
While not at the same level as Belgium and Croatia, Morocco will be a formidable foe, both Forrest and Molinaro said.
In World Cup qualification, Morocco went undefeated, winning all six of their matches to finish first in the group. The team had scored 20 goals and only conceded one during qualification.
Morocco is “one of the top teams in Africa,” Molinaro said. The team includes star players like forward Youssef En-Nesyri and attacking midfielder Sofiane Boufal. Morocco qualified for the 2018 World Cup, but did not advance out of the group stage.
“Very skilled side, very quick, can hit you on the counterattack. That’s going to be a dangerous game for Canada as well, especially coming off those first two games against Belgium and Croatia,” Molinaro said.
“I would suggest Morocco is more on Canada’s level, so I’ll be interested to see how they sort of deal with a somewhat young Moroccan side who has a lot of young legs in them and how it deals with its sort of pace.”
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Furthermore, Morocco will be emboldened by their undefeated run in qualification, said Forrest.
“This team is used to winning,” he said. “They’re a pretty tight group and they’re going to be difficult to beat.”
Morocco sits in 22nd place on the FIFA men’s rankings.
With Canada’s opponents determined, it’s clear the men’s team will have their work cut out for them, especially given the order in which they will face their competition, said Molinaro.
“Belgium and Croatia are just two of the European heavyweights, and the fact that those are the first two games right out of the gate, there’s no soft landing for Canada. They really have to hit the ground running. There’s very little margin for error,” he said.
“Had they been playing Morocco in the first game or the second game, not to downplay Morocco because I think they’re a tough opponent too, but I think that would have eased Canada’s transition to the World Cup a little bit.”
However, don’t expect Canada to get routed at the World Cup, both analysts say. In Mexico 1986, Canada failed to score a goal and was beat in all three of its group games. This men’s team is loaded with talent, especially in attacking players who play in competitive leagues overseas.
Canada stunned in regional qualifying games, beating heavyweights the United States and Mexico in competitions. The team finished first in the final round of qualification, cementing a record of eight wins, four draws and two losses on 23 goals scored and seven against en route to Qatar. FIFA ranks Canada as the 41st best men’s team in international soccer.
“I would be surprised if this is a repeat of 1986 where they suffered three shutout losses, didn’t score a single goal and they return home with their tail between their legs. You’re going to see progress from that,” Molinaro said.
“You’re going to see a competitive team that sort of makes life uncomfortable for their three opponents. Do they get out of the group? I wouldn’t necessarily bet on that because I just think the challenge of Croatia and Belgium is too steep for them to overcome, but I fully expect them to be competitive and put on a good showing in Qatar.”
— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz and The Associated Press