Canada’s feel-good World Cup melody hits sour note with Iran debacle

<span>Photograph: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports

They’d done the hard part without him. Not just hard. Historically hard.

When the Canadian men sealed a place at the World Cup for the first time in a lifetime in March, the most remarkable part of this most remarkable journey was that it had been sealed without the country’s talisman. Alphonso Davies had missed the entirety of the second half of Concacaf qualification as John Herdman’s unlikely, unheralded men from the north topped the continent to book their spot in Qatar.

The party? That should have been the easy bit. Instead, Canada begin their first post-qualification window in Vancouver on Sunday in dire need of some Davies magic.

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In a damaging debacle that started out in slow motion before picking up speed and rapidly running away from them, Canada Soccer managed to sour at worst some of the feel-good factor that the team had worked so hard to build up. Twelve months of positivity and light shadowed in just two weeks of bumbling bureaucracy.

Having left it particularly late to book just a single opponent for the current window (rivals Mexico and USA by comparison both had two friendlies confirmed weeks before), Canada Soccer unveiled Iran in mid-May as opposition for the first home game since qualification. It sparked an immediate firestorm.

In January 2020, 85 Canadian citizens and permanent resident were among 176 killed when Ukraine Airlines flight PS752 was shot down by Iranian missiles shortly after take-off from Tehran. Inviting the country’s national team, which has been reported to have close ties to members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, was a major misjudgement.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau immediately labelled the match “a bad idea”. Families of the victims of PS752 lashed Canada Soccer, who initially tried to stand their ground, arguing that the “power of sport” meant this was all a good thing. When Iranian officials revealed they would be paid C$400,000 for the game, making a profit on a friendly for the first time in 22 years, things snowballed further.

The government’s former special advisor to Canada’s response to the tragedy and current High Commission to the UK, Ralph Goodale excoriated the national association. “This behavior by Canada Soccer is repugnant,” he said. “It calls into question both the competence and the values of the organization.”

Herdman and his players, so recently heralded from all corners of a country that jumped on board as qualification dream became reality, were now bombarded with pleas of protest and anger. Canada Soccer relented and cancelled the game with midfielder Jonathan Osorio later confirming the players had left the association in no doubt about their discomfort and opposition to the game.

The 30,000-plus tickets already sold were refunded but the mess didn’t simply end with one right decision finally being made. There was a fresh scramble to find someone, anyone to fill the slot, with Panama, an all-too familiar foe, stepping in. Iran, who will face both the US and England in Qatar, aren’t going away quietly, with officials there saying they’ll sue Canada Soccer for C$10m over the cancellation.

An unholy mess. And a wholly unnecessary one too.

“Not ideal … at all,” Craig Forrest, the former Canada and West Ham goalkeeper told the Guardian this week “You look at this group of players who have done so much to build up excitement and good will. They’re a young, diverse side who stand for so many good things and then you’re going to put them into a position where they’re going to have protestors outside their bus when they arrive for their first game after qualifying? You just didn’t need to do that to them.”

Mitigating but minor factors hadn’t helped. Canada Soccer had first focused on securing Tunisia. With Morocco, as well as Belgium and Croatia, in their World Cup group, that would have been a good fit and test but didn’t materialize. The turf field in Vancouver didn’t help attract teams either. But none of this justified all that followed.

On the back of the Canadian women’s Olympic glory in Tokyo, the men had helped fulfil Herdman’s prophecy that Canada could become “a football nation”. Their efficiency and execution had helped imbue a sense that after decades of dysfunction, Canada Soccer had its house in order and was able to move in step with two modern, ambitious national teams. The Iran affair has been the record scratch to so much of that. In a country where the battle for sporting hearts and minds, not to mention marketing dollars and media space, is ferocious, its damage may not yet be fully realized.

“Years ago if we were playing Iran, it wouldn’t have even got noticed. But suddenly these flawed or wrong decisions are getting noticed big time. You’re under the magnifying glass now. I think there’s a lot of things the CSA aren’t ready for,” added Forrest, who played through so many of the dark times, on and off the pitch. “The only difference between now and then has been John Herdman who has managed to guide the players through all of the challenges. I don’t think enough has changed.”

To emphasize that point, on the Canada Soccer website both the general secretary and deputy general secretary roles are listed as “vacant”. But it has to change – and fast. The September international window will see Herdman take his team to Europe where Canada could really do with facing some quality opposition. In the longer run, with the 2026 World Cup coming to Canada, the chaos of recent weeks has hardly inspired confidence at Fifa HQ.

Both the short and long term are constantly on Herdman’s mind. Being left with Panama and Concacaf Nations League games against Curacao and Honduras in this window is far from ideal. Of the 29 teams qualified for Qatar, 23 have at least one match against fellow World Cup opposition in this window. The US and Mexico arranged two each.

Forrest said one of Herdman’s mantras to his players is that they “live in this world of the unexpected and it’s on us to expect it … and roll with it”. On Sunday in Vancouver they’ll try to do that. There may be a first Canadian cap for teenage attacker Luca Koleosho, who recently made his La Liga debut for Espanyol. But it is Davies who offers the best chance to flip the script.

The Bayern Munich star missed the final seven qualifiers due to myocarditis. But it was he who truly sparked the campaign in the first place – against Panama. An electrifying solo goal against them in Toronto in October was the moment that lit the feel-good fuse in the first place.

Back in the fold, and back in the city where he began his professional career as a 16-year-old, a little bit of the same suddenly feels badly needed.