KJ’s World Cup Diary, Day 1: Canada (and the world) arrive in Doha
Saturday November 19th, 2022
There are no other words placed next to each other in this sport that have the same power to make people pay attention.
Fans of this sport all have their own World Cup. Supporters of all ages will have memories of this wonderful tournament placed throughout their minds, but there is always one World Cup they fall back on. The first World Cup I remember is Mexico 1986. Diego Maradona punching a ball into the net against England and then scoring a remarkable goal — a goal that time has since rightfully crowned as one of the greatest ever scored.
For me, though, my World Cup was Italia ’90. This came at an age where I was able to buy the stickers, watch the games and fall asleep to the tremendous tones of Luciano Pavarotti.
The games were low-scoring, and often dull, but I didn’t care about being entertained by the quality of football. The World Cup was for some familiar names to shine, and others to be discovered. Aston Villa’s David Platt was my favourite player and his 119th minute winner against Belgium in the last 16 felt like my goal. Suddenly, all my mates congratulated me and sung the praises of my hero the next day.
The World Cup was also a stage for new stars to be discovered. My eyes widened when the great Lothar Matthaus slalomed his way past the Yugoslavians and hit a shot so fierce that it became officially the hardest ball my mind will have ever seen. Nothing will top just how hard I thought he hit it that day. Enzo Scifo, Giuseppe Giannini and Claudio Caniggia went from the pitches in Italy to posters on my wall. With little access to other leagues, all the players, countries, coaches and different tactics were transported from seemingly a different time into our living rooms.
Fast forward 32 years and it is difficult to recapture the thrill of uncovering anything new in the game anymore. Even in our wonderful country of Canada, where more and more leagues are being placed on different streaming platforms, we are still fortunate to have the ability to get what we want if we want it.
Canada have wanted to play in this competition for years and have arrived here in Qatar to compete against the best in the world for the first time since 1986. For those of us no longer able to watch this through the mind of a child, it will at the very least feel like that a little. It’s just so different, something so few thought would happen to get to see Canada playing on this stage at this time.
This will attract new fans across our country to watch games like never before, which we should never take for granted. We may not see the benefits for some time, but what Canada will do at this World Cup will have a profound impact on some people, who will then go on to make a difference in the sport in the future. It will also give youngsters now a reference point to strive toward.
Canada does not lack talent across youth levels in the country. It does, however, lack driven individuals who really must want it and are prepared to sacrifice things to reach the professional level. This means stepping out of the comfort zone. A World Cup and this group of players, who themselves each have a story full of perseverance on their way to the World Cup, will give some the reason to push through the challenges and overcome. Fittingly, for this Canada squad, who each stepped out of their own comfort zones at times to reach this level, they now find themselves in a country where most people are out of their own comfort zones.
Qatar welcomes the world
It has been great to see Canadian shirts on the streets of Doha already. Many of the wonderful Voyageurs, Canada’s national soccer supporters’ group, were on my flight into Qatar. Others were already in the airport welcoming fellow Voyageurs to a strange new land. Unless FIFA decides to hold the World Cup on the moon in the future, it is reasonable to accept that Qatar will likely go down as the unlikeliest host this tournament will ever see so for them to make the journey is simply brilliant.
I’ve been here exactly 24 hours as I write this. It already feels like far longer. Interactions with locals have been very pleasant. Restaurant workers, security guards, drivers and staff in shops remain private individuals but their faces light up when they find out we are from Canada. They are keen to hear about our country and then feel encouraged to welcome us to theirs. It has been great to see so many friends already from the media world and everyone so far has expressed how welcome they have felt here.
Friday night at the Souq Waqif, a central marketplace of stores and restaurants, was a real mixture of locals and football supporters enjoying themselves. A nice meal – a form of meat or fish with potatoes/vegetables for example – can vary between 70 and 100 Qatari Rial, anywhere between $25 and $40. Grocery shopping is relatively similar with fresh produce and fruit priced a little more than what we may pay back in Canada.
It’s one day but Mexico, Morocco and Saudi Arabia certainly lead the way in the Supporters League Table when it comes to counting fans with my own eyes. Many remain in some hotels where alcohol can be consumed, of course. I spent much of Saturday in the Media Centre, however, and more and more supporters are expected to arrive closer to when their teams kick off.
Can Qatar progress from Group A?
For the hosts that comes on Sunday. Few have given Felix Sanchez’s team a chance to progress. It does feel a little like Russia in 2018, fully understanding that Qatar do not have the calibre of players that Russia did four years ago.
What Russia did have, though, is the chance to host the opening match against their weakest opponent in the group, a scenario that seems to the case for the 2022 hosts who start against low-scoring Ecuador. Should Qatar win, their chances of progressing will be significant.
Since this current format for the World Cup was introduced in 1998, there have been 73 teams who have won their first World Cup group match and 60 of those sides progressed into the last 16 (82 per cent).
With the World Cup kicking off and the world watching, Qatar may not have a better chance than winning the opener and putting one foot into the knockout stages. We’ll have more on that one in tomorrow’s diary as we head towards Al Bayt Stadium.
John Herdman addressed the media here today and the big news remains the availability of Alphonso Davies and Stephen Eustáquio to start the opening game against Belgium on Wednesday. No one needs me to tell them that these two are probably Canada’s two most important difference-makers. Canadians will be hoping they are available, and I’ll be surprised if they are not.
There is some media buzz around Doha about Canada’s chances to progress from Group F, but it is clear they have a real difficult task ahead. Fellow Concacaf countries Mexico and USA, for example, have benefited from far more comfortable groups where they can afford to not play well for longer periods of time and still have chances to progress. Canada, as expected being a pot four team at the draw, do not get such benefits. They remain, rightfully, positive and believe they can progress, but the reality is they will have to be ruthless when given their chances and can still play well for long periods and get knocked out.
In 2018, just one of the pot four teams progressed to the last 16 and none of them won more than one game in the group, with a combined record of five wins, three draws and 16 losses. Effectively, this means two thirds of their games ended in defeat. In 2014, the bottom eight teams according to rankings were even worse combining for just two wins, four draws and 18 losses!
Canada have shown they can overcome any hurdle thrown in their direction and therefore have been given the right to ensure no one should question them when they say they can do this. That is already a statement and insight into just how far they have come. However, if the rest of the footballing world were a jury in a court ready to assess who would progress in this group it would be an overwhelming verdict for Belgium and Croatia. Internally, Canada should let the rest of the world come to that conclusion and simply focus on being the best version of themselves for all three games.
Whether or not it is Canada in Group F I can already smell some upsets here in the suppressing desert heat. International football is virtually a different sport to what most of us watch on weekends across the world. Slower games, lower blocks — in a tournament style with so much to lose — often leads to games with even further fine lines than normal, particularly as these teams have not had much time to prepare, joining up just this past week.
England boss Gareth Southgate said recently he felt up to nine different teams could win the World Cup. If I was to ask Southgate personally, after I tell him to play Phil Foden, I’d guess he means England, Argentina, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Croatia, Brazil and Portugal. The Netherlands, and everyone’s favourite dark horse — who is not a dark horse but is just a real horse in the race — Denmark could also be considered. Of these 11 teams I see teams that can get knocked out in the group stages.
Tomorrow’s crystal ball
Qatar 2-0 Ecuador