Wednesday is a truly special day for Canadian sports fans. For only the second time in our nation’s history, our Canadian men’s soccer team will compete at a FIFA World cup, the largest international sporting event in the world.
Canada doesn’t exactly get to ease gently into their first World Cup action since 1986. No, it’ll be more like trying to jump onto a speeding train as it passes by. Straight away, Canada starts out round robin play in Qatar against a very powerful Belgium side. The Belgians aren’t just the best team in Canada’s group (Group F), they’re the second ranked team in the entire world.
Even with all hands on deck, Canada is the heavy underdog here. But John Herdman’s team has also had the injury bug to worry about this week and it struck his most important player.
Until today, no one seemed sure if Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, probably Canada’s greatest player ever, would be healthy enough to suit up for the opening match. Davies hasn’t played since suffering a hamstring strain November 6th in a German league match.
Herdman had been slightly coy about it all week but announced today that Davies’ status was never really in question.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’d be starting him,” said Herdman. “But you’ve got to follow the medical advice. That’s always part of this. The safety of the players is paramount… At the end of the day, Phonzie’s fit now. He’s hit his markers. He’s ready to go. He’s flying in training, enjoying himself. We’re in a position now where we can field our strongest team.
“It’s exciting times for us now. The dark clouds have shifted. This will be our last training session together (before the tournament starts) where we’ll all be 100%.”
This “nothing to see here” announcement was a dramatic contrast to reports of Davies looking uncomfortable at times in training this week. Hamstring issues are often difficult and take time to fully overcome. Even though he’s starting, it’s hard not to wonder if the issue will take at least a little off the incredible speed Davies showcased all through World Cup qualifying.
Defensive midfielder Stephen Eustáquio is also expected to start against Belgium on Wednesday.
And Herdman hopes his keeper, Milan Borjan, will participate fully in the team’s final training session before the opener.
Canada’s lineup also includes Jonathan David, who grew up in Ottawa, playing minor soccer for the Gloucester Hornets and the Ottawa Internationals. David has been outstanding for the national team, with 22 goals in 33 matches.
Canada will surely have its hands full in its opening game Wednesday. Belgium finished third at the last World Cup and scored more goals than any other team in that tournament. But, hey, after Saudi Arabia’s shocking upset of Argentina last night, it feels like anything is possible.
By Steve Warne
Canada’s Group F Schedule (round robin):
Nov 23 vs Belgium at 2pm
Nov 27 vs Croatia at 11am
Dec 1 vs Morocco at 10am
(Top two teams from each group advance to next round)
Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade)
James Pantemis (CF Montreal)
Dayne St Clair (Minnesota United)
Sam Adekugbe (Hatayspor)
Derek Cornelius (Vancouver Whitecaps – Panetolikos)
Alistair Johnston (CF Montreal)
Richie Laryea (Nottingham Forest)
Kamal Miller (CF Montreal)
Steven Vitoria (Chaves)
Joel Waterman (CF Montreal)
Stephen Eustaquio (FC Porto)
Liam Fraser (Deinze)
Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas)
Mark-Anthony Kaye (Toronto FC)
Ismael Kone (CF Montreal)
Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC)
Samuel Piette (CF Montreal)
David Wotherspoon (St Johnstone)
Tajon Buchanan (Club Bruges)
Lucas Cavallini (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Jonathan David (Lille)
Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Junior Hoillett (Reading)
Cyle Larin (Club Bruges)
Liam Miller (FC Basel)
Ike Ugbo (Troyes)