Photograph: Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images
In the thick of a national election that nobody asked for, John Herdman appears to be the only Canadian leader harnessing the power of youth.
Prime minister Justin Trudeau’s gamble in calling a pandemic-weary nation to the polls for a snap referendum on his leadership could backfire spectacularly as Canadian voters’ sigh a collective “could we just…not?” Young voters seem as uninspired by six years of Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ as they are by the alternatives. Overpromising and underdelivering has never been the best way of bringing youth into politics.
Herdman has made big promises too. Barely a year after taking the job, the manager of Canada’s men’s national football team told a gathered crowd in early 2019 that the country was “going to qualify for Qatar 2022”. It’s hard to think of a better example candidate of someone overpromising in Canadian sports.
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The country has made it to precisely one men’s World Cup, a solitary summer in 1986 so distant to younger Canadians that it may as well be a more ancient kind of history. The intervening 35 years of striving to get back to football’s biggest show have featured a little agony, a lot of ignominy and, in the end, anonymity. It’s not so much that Canada have been absent from the past eight World Cups, it’s that their absence has never been noticed.
But Herdman, the affable Englishman who caused a minor storm when he left the Canada’s women’s team to take over the men, has delivered. Partially. Canada have progressed to the final stages of Concacaf qualification for the first time in a young lifetime. He has harnessed the power and promise of a new generation of Canadian football talent, headed by Bayern Munich’s electric Alphonso Davies.
Fresh from kicking off their campaign with a gritty 1-1 draw against Honduras in Toronto on Thursday night, Canada travel south to face the US in Nashville on Sunday night. The final stage is underway and if that promise is weighing on Herdman, he’s not showing it.
Bayern Munich wing-back Alphonso Davies is the leader of a new generation of Canadian players. Photograph: Phamai Techaphan/Shutterstock
“I feel a freedom,” the 46-year-old tells the Guardian. “It’s a strange feeling, coming in to something that for our country has so much magnitude. It’s a major moment for our sport and yet, yeah, there’s just a freedom.
“The World Cup [second round] qualification was such a challenging period of my career. The emotionality around Covid, staff putting their lives at risk travelling to countries like Haiti when government advisories are telling us we shouldn’t. Knowing that if you’ve failed, the country’s dreams are up in smoke. The pressure around those matches, I feel freedom now. Free to fear nothing. To take the risks that you need to take as a coach to get this job done now.”
Canada’s progress through the second round was upstaged by an absurd own goal by Haiti goalkeeper Josué Duverger that helped get them there. But it was the kind of breakthrough that deserved pause and praise. With the pandemic forcing Concacaf into hasty rearrangements to its qualifying format, it was a breakthrough that came at the most opportune time.
Three automatic places at Qatar 2022 are up for grabs in the hectic eight-team round, while the team in fourth will earn an inter-continental playoff berth. Canada have risen from 95th in the world when Herdman took over to 59th in the most recent Fifa rankings. They’ve won nine of 12 games in a particularly hectic 2021. If Mexico and the US are favourites for the top two berths in the octagonal, then Canada are absolutely in the battle for third, a battle that could become a dogfight.
“It’s definitely exciting times. But it’s also a unique time, the way that the qualifiers have been set up. It’s really worked in our favour,” Dwayne De Rosario, the country’s all-time record goalscorer, says. “Making a comparison with ’86 to now is unfair. But I do believe that we have the players who have the tools and the capabilities of going down to these places and getting results.”
That Herdman named his squad for this opening triple-header on the morning of the Uefa Champions League group stage draw was fitting. Five members of his 23-man group were watching with interest. Another handful were competing in Europa League qualifiers later that evening. If 20-year-old Davies is the all-smiling, swashbuckling face of the new generation with a compelling backstory to match, there are plenty more taking up space in the frame.
Jonathan David’s guile and goals helped guide Lille to the Ligue 1 title last season, justifying a Canadian record €30m fee. In Turkey, fellow striker Cyle Larin fired Besiktas to a championship alongside Canadian captain Atiba Hutchison, not so much ageless but at 38, peerless. Not a single other member of Herdman’s squad was even a professional footballer when Hutchison made his international debut in 2003. Tajon Buchanan’s electrifying play in MLS earned him a $7m move to Club Brugge last month.
Herdman, the former Durham PE teacher turned globetrotting coach, is a deep thinker as well as bold talker. Eager to show that “a guy who’s read 400 books is [as capable to succeed as coach] as a guy who’s played 400 games,” he is intensely focused on culture. He’s successfully gelled the bigger, burgeoning names with less-heralded talents. Scott Kennedy from SVV Jahn in Germany’s second tier, towering veteran defender Steven Vitoria from Moreirense and fellow Portugal-based recruit Stephen Eustaquio are prime examples. Having that core of European title winners complements any culture.
“When you talk about brotherhood, right at the core of that is trust,” Herdman says. “Trust breeds safety, Safety breeds a freedom to [play] how they want to play. That’s the difference now. These guys, people know they’re going to deliver. That’s trust. And that trust breeds everything.”
Once dysfunctional, Canada Soccer being in better shape to harness this generation’s talents helps too. In his recent autobiography, De Rosario recounted having to return jerseys after matches so youth players could wear them. Or how his reward for being national team player of the year in 2006 was a Sony gift card.
The Canadian game is far removed from that now. The women’s team that Herdman had guided to successive bronze medals transfixed the nation when going two better and claiming an historic Olympic gold in Tokyo. In a population that is getting more diverse and is the youngest in the G7, football is the fastest-growing participation sport in the land. The men’s World Cup is coming to these shores in 2026. A new men’s professional league has shown promising signs of building on the established MLS trio. In an era when we try too hard to find moments, this one is easier identified. Herdman is desperate to harness it.
That begins with harnessing the best out of Davies. “We’ve got an absolute gift,” Herdman says of a player he has used in defence, wide and across the attack. “I’m learning about him at Bayern Munich. At times, he looks like a caged lion. He needs to have more freedom. I’m always looking at where can he really put dread in an opponent and in a particular game, where do you need his quality the most.”
In Herdman’s preferred 3-5-2, defence remains the concern but there has been progress, six clean sheets in 12 games this year. Canada fly into Nashville with 1986 on their mind. But 1957 comes into focus too – the only time the neighbours from the north beat the US in a competitive game on American soil. A rivalry that hasn’t been much of a rivalry at all was ignited when Herdman and Canada got the better of Gregg Berhalter’s side in 2019, a night when promise was delivered.
“The moment against the US here in Toronto is a big step to let people know that we’re on our way,” Herdman says. “And then that moment in Haiti where we show that the purpose wouldn’t give way to the pain. Watching the lads sing the anthem in a way that I hadn’t experienced in the three years I’ve being here … it just shows that it means more to us now. They’ll fight tooth and nail to take this country to Qatar.”