The 2022 World Cup might be over, but the memories and impact of Canada's return to the sporting world's most popular global event won't dissipate anytime soon. I was fortunate enough to get a front-row seat to Canada's tournament in Qatar through my coverage for The Athletic and there was no shortage of highs and lows.
First, the highs: there was more interest in this Canadian side's return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986 than even I had anticipated.
I personally wondered heading into the match: how would Canada respond to the pressure of playing in their first World Cup in 36 years? And how would Canada's travelling fans, led of course by The Voyageurs themselves, make their presence known?
Canada was picked by many pundits heading into the tournament as a team that could surprise. And sure enough, the questions from curious onlookers about how Canada shot up from being ranked 120th in the world by FIFA in 2017 to qualifying for a World Cup five years later were consistent. Those questions only ramped up after Canada's impressive first match, in which they dominated play against an experienced Belgium side by playing with pace and attacking prowess.
And those Canadian fans showed up, big time: in the hours leading up to kick-off, the sounds of Tom Cochrane's "Life is a Highway" playing on the public address system and the constant chanting from Canadian fans, boldly proclaiming "This is our house!" drowned out any sound of Belgium's fans whatsoever. Canadian fans weren't just happy to be invited to the dance: they wanted to take centre stage.
Though Canada lost 1-0, the team undoubtedly gained a number of new fans with their fearless style of play.
Many of those new fans were abroad, but you have to believe that the men's national team, long an afterthought in Canada, gained new fans at home, too: Bell Media reported that Canada's tournament opener against Belgium drew an average audience of 3.7 million viewers, becoming the most-watched World Cup Group Stage match on record in Canada, and the second-most-watched sports broadcast of the year behind the Super Bowl.
Interest in the Canadian side only continued to expand after that match when Canada coach John Herdman famously told TSN that he told his players after the match they were going to move on to the next game against Croatia and "F- Croatia." It was a bold move that embodied the fearless approach Herdman wanted his team to play with and for the next three days, the Canadian side's bullish ways were the talk of Qatar.
In the pre-match press conference, I had a chance to ask Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic and winger Ivan Perisic what their reaction to Herdman's message was, and I'll never forget the look, and sound, of steely resolve from the two: Dalic responded in a heated manner, repeating how the Croatian team demanded the kind of respect that they didn't feel they were getting from the Canadians, and Perisic then stared me down before stating that he "couldn't wait" to play Canada.
For 15 minutes or so once the game itself started, it looked like Canada's bullish ways would pay off: after missing a crucial penalty against Belgium, Alphonso Davies responded with a soaring header to score Canada's first goal in a men's World Cup. But not long afterwards, Croatia responded, showing their own experience and resolve. It was clear this game meant a little more to Croatia as they piled on four unanswered goals, each one celebrated with fervour by some of Croatia's substitutes near Herdman himself.
And those are the lows of Canada's World Cup in Qatar: the lack of experience this team still has couldn't be overcome. There is undoubtedly talent within this team, and talent to build on: 23-year-old Tajon Buchanan dazzled as Canada's best and most electric player. But Buchanan is one of the few Canadian players to be playing regular Champions League soccer, whereas Belgium, Croatia and Morocco for that matter featured far more players plying their trade in top European leagues. Many of the topics and lessons covered in The Voyageurs can be applied to Canada's 2022 World Cup run: player development is vital, and experience isn't accrued overnight.
After Canada's final match, a 2-1 loss to Morocco that saw their tournament come to a close, there was a sense of resilience from the players I spoke to. They did not believe the gap in talent between the teams they played was that vast. They believed that with more time and experience, they'd return stronger when Canada co-hosts the World Cup in 2026.
Personally, I can't wait for the World Cup to return in less than four years and to see if they're right.
Joshua Kloke is a sports and music journalist whose work has been published by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sportsnet, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail. He currently covers Toronto FC and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Athletic. He lives in Toronto. Learn more here.