DOHA, Qatar -- Many Canadian soccer fans have been waiting for this moment their entire lives.
Long an afterthought behind hockey in their home country, Canada’s soccer team is back in the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and opens Wednesday against a daunting opponent: second-ranked Belgium, a 2018 semifinalist.
“I’ve already seen it sparking a lot of interest in younger players, 7-, 8-year olds, some in my family, teammates, children,” Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson said Tuesday. “Just the interest that it’s brought to our country is really special to see. I’ve been with the national team a very long time and I never seen it get to this level.”
The 39-year-old Hutchinson is the only player in Canada's squad who was alive at the time of the nation's last World Cup match. Canada lost three in a row to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union and went scoreless with a squad that included Bob Lenarduzzi, Tino Lettieri and Branko Segota.
“We want to put Canada on the map,” Hutchinson said.
His earliest soccer memories are of the 1994 World Cup in the United States, when he was 11 and rooted for Brazil, the eventual champion.
“I was into that one,” Hutchinson said. “The fans in the stadium, around the stadium, it was special to see, and that kind of sparked a very big interest in me and given me that feeling of maybe one day playing in a World Cup.”
These Canadians are led by a new generation headed by Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin. They finished first in CONCACAF qualifying, a turnaround engineered by coach John Herdman. He coached the Canadian women to bronze medals in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, then switched to the men in 2018.
“It’s a dream come true, I think, for me, the players, the country,” Herdman said. “We’ve got to enjoy that process, enjoy the experience, enjoy knowing that there's people back home surrounding the TVs, filling bars and restaurants. ... We're pinching ourselves. It’s just real now. It’s getting more real by the hour."
Herdman said Davies is fully fit and on track to start after recovering from a strained right hamstring that has sidelined him since Nov. 5.
“Canada are in a position now where we can field our strongest team,” Herdman said. “It’s exciting times for us. Now the dark clouds have shifted.”
Part of a Group F that includes Croatia and Morocco, Belgium is in its seventh year under coach Roberto Martinez. The Red Devils finished third at the 2018 World Cup and lost to Italy in the quarterfinals of last year’s European Championship.
Its core may be at or just past peak, with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard both 31, Romelu Lukaku 29 and Youri Tielemans part of the next age group at 25.
Lukaku will not play Wednesday because of a left thigh injury.
Belgium is coming off a 2-1 friendly loss to Egypt last week.
“Probably gave us a wake-up that we needed,” Martinez said. “I was worried how we would react going into a preparation of three or four days before you can play the first game, what, normally you got four, five, six weeks to prepare for a competition and probably that defeat speeded up the process.”
He expressed admiration for Canada.
“They look like a team. They never look like a group of players coming together to represent the national team," Martinez said. “They look like a team very clear in their concepts, firm, very dynamic, competitive. A team that they know their strengths.”
WITH THE WHISTLE
Janny Sikazwe of Zambia will referee the match. During an African Cup of Nations match in January, he blew his whistle to end the game after 85 minutes, then restart it and ended it after 89 minutes, 47 seconds, when about three minutes of injury time had been expected.
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