After statement Copa America win, Canada's men's national team might never look the same again


ARLINGTON, Texas – One by one, Canada’s players left their dressing room, some arm-in-arm, some strutting with open cans of cold beer in hand.

Ismael Kone, who scored Canada’s winning penalty in a dramatic quarter-final win over Venezuela, carried a speaker over his head blaring out hip-hop music as he strolled past dozens of stunned Venezuelan journalists.

You couldn’t mistake the strange, new feeling it represented.

Less than two years ago, Canada was eliminated by Croatia in their second game of the 2022 World Cup. After they were humbled by a more experienced side, the Croatia team stormed through the mixed zone — where media wait to speak to players after a game — in Qatar, pumping music out of a speaker to remind any onlookers who was victorious.

And so as Kone and his team-mates danced with swagger, that feeling Canada had long pined for was clear: unbridled and deserved pride and joy.

For years, this Canadian team has been defined by promise. Its players are rich with talent but bereft of experience. Their biggest wins came inside CONCACAF but outside the region (and even in tournament knockout rounds within the region) Canada stumbled. They would learn the hard way, with Croatian pop songs in their heads.

Yet with a signature win now under their belts, Canada can proudly march to its own song. This is finally the team it has long wanted to be.

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Canada’s players celebrating victory over Venezuela (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

At Copa America, Canada (ranked No. 48 in the world) has lost 2-0 to semi-final opponents Argentina (No. 1), beaten Peru 1-0 (No. 31), drawn 0-0 with Chile (No. 40) and knocked out Venezuela (No. 54) on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It was Canada’s first penalty shootout win since beating Martinique a generation ago in the 2002 Gold Cup quarterfinal.

The story of Canada’s forays into Central America have usually all ended the same: with them returning home with their tail between their legs. A messy and crushing 8-1 defeat in Honduras in 2012 when Canada needed just a draw to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying was the norm, not the outlier.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Takeaways: Canada wins penalty shootout to reach Copa America semifinal

But this time Canada did not wilt under the noise. No more learning moments. After years of disappointment, the win over Venezuela showed they developed the kind of emotional fortitude needed to win in tournaments.

“I don’t think people realize how hard (Canada’s matches) are,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “We’re against everything. It takes all those other experiences, those games in the World Cup that we lose, to get to here.”

What Canada has gone through for years has been necessary to their evolution. For generations, a lack of interest swallowed this team, born largely out of a lack of results and the dominance of hockey as one of the country’s national sports. A visit to the 1986 World Cup, Canada’s first, is more mirage than memory in the minds of Canadians. Now they have a World Cup on home soil to look forward to in less than two years’ time.

And we need to separate the men’s team from the women’s team here. The latter has experienced the kind of success – including an Olympic gold medal in 2021 – that has lapped their male counterparts.

But as the women’s team rose, the men’s team flapped. The sport grew in popularity through the 2000s. Canada’s men, unfortunately, did not produce results nearly good enough to make them relevant with a larger audience.

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Canada failed to impress at the 2022 World Cup (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Things looked different under John Herdman from 2018. There was a new star in Alphonso Davies and a forward-looking culture that made Canadians take notice. Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was a start, but three disappointing losses in Qatar led to whispers of “Same ol’ Canada” in bars and basements across the country.

Especially in tournament soccer, what good is process without results?

Winning on penalties in what was essentially an away game — in front of a very pro-Venezuela crowd in Texas — could be Canada’s greatest leap into the wider conversation across the country.

“We’re reaching a bigger crowd than just the football-mad crowd in Canada. And that’s what you want to do,” defender Alistair Johnston said. “We’re inspiring a lot of people and a lot of people are really tuning in, feeling like, ‘Wow, not only is this team reaching these kind of tournaments, but they’re competing.’ That’s something that the guys can be proud of.”

The win could, and should, change the discourse around this team.

Canada were missing Tajon Buchanan, their best player at the 2022 World Cup, after a freak broken leg in training cast a shadow over this team’s chances. Instead of letting that defeat them, it fuelled them. When Jacob Shaffelburg pulled out a Buchanan jersey to celebrate his goal, Canada’s resolve hit newfound highs.

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(Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

The talent is certainly there. The sport is played by more children in Canada than hockey, it is relatively inexpensive to participate and a diverse population can merge its roots from soccer-loving nations with Canada’s still-growing soccer pitches.

Yet the Canadian Premier League only came into existence in 2019. Canada’s three Major League Soccer teams and their respective academy systems are only just emerging from their embryonic state.

Talent will still slip through the cracks.

That’s what nearly happened with Kone, who grew up playing in parks around Montreal rather than in organized academies. Or Shaffelburg, who had more reasons than not to become a Canada international without proper development resources in his province, Nova Scotia.

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Kone seals Canada’s place in the semi-finals (Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet the dramatic win over Venezuela was a reminder of what those deep in Canadian soccer have been saying for years: There is more to soccer in Canada than Alphonso Davies, and there is more to this team that its stars.

Because this team feels different. Where they didn’t earn respect in the past, now they should.

“Probably not,” new Canada head coach Jesse Marsch said when asked if Canada gets enough respect. “But that will take time. Respect comes in a lot of different ways, but the best way to earn respect is to win matches.

“When you have these moments, the key is to stay focused and capture the energy around the team. We’ve done that. Inside the group, there’s been focus and concentration to keep going.”

Even with Argentina looming (again) in the semi-final, Canada can now feel like they belong in that game in a way they never could before. That means Canada’s national team might never look the same again.

“I think people need to realize that (Canada’s success) doesn’t just happen right away,” Osorio said. “You need to learn and you need to take steps forward. And we have done that. And that’s why we are where we are today.”

(Top photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)



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