Oh Canada! Larin and Buchanan lead team to first men’s World Cup since 1986

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<span>Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP</span>
Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

Oh? Canada? Yes, Canada.

Almost four decades after their only appearance at a men’s World Cup, Canada are back, becoming the first North American nation to secure passage to Qatar 2022.

In the most fitting style and circumstances John Herdman’s side, who have surprised first their own country and then Concacaf, qualified with an emphatic 4-0 win over Jamaica at a raucous BMO Field in Toronto. The team sent thousands in the stadium – and millions more across the country – into delight.

The circumstances were fitting because the weather gods of the great white north scoffed at the idea of spring and sent freezing snow showers and wild winds whipping in off Lake Ontario for this historic Sunday. But the style too was apt because Herdman, the Englishman who has almost single-handedly transformed the country into a men’s football nation, saw his side conquer the climate and seal progress with 90 minutes of swashbuckling counter-attacking.

Just four of a feast of chances were taken but no matter. After so long in exile, all that mattered was the return.

And now, suddenly, bright and bold in brilliant red, here are Canada. How? Because, simply put, these last 12 months were unlike any that came before for Canadian football. First of all, the women’s team won gold at the Tokyo Olympics. And all the while, the men were steering a course to their first World Cup since 1986.

Sunday marked Canada’s 24th game in exactly 12 months, a barely precedented schedule that should have been soul-sapping. It could have strained untested bodies and minds. Instead it bound the team together, forging a collective will that shone through one starry (and snowy) night after the next.

Related: Canada’s Cyle Larin: ‘We can compete against anybody. Playing for this team is special’

A journey that began with wins over the likes of the Cayman Islands behind closed doors has, in one year, accumulated memories to last lifetimes. Victory in Haiti as they advanced to the final qualifying round of Concacaf for the first time since 1998; Alphonso Davies’ solo wonder goal against Panama; vanquishing Mexico at the Iceteca; Milan Borjan bellowing as the US were beaten in Hamilton. Now this Canadian heritage moment: sealing a World Cup berth in squalls and sunshine.

In September, Herdman spoke to the Guardian about feeling “a freedom” to make history and how “brotherhood” would be what would get them there. The same word kept coming up. There’s little doubt that the schedule helped Canada’s family flourish.

On the eve of this decisive date with Jamaica, midfielder Stephen Eustaquio said he’ll “invite all of [the team] to my wedding. They’re family.”

Cyle Larin may have claimed the best man’s role after 13 minutes on Sunday as Herdman’s side countered with purpose and Eustaquio threaded a pass the striker’s way. He dispatched it past Andre Blake and Canadian lungs emptied in delight.

Tajon Buchanan added the second a minute before the break, sweeping the ball home – and sweeping a nation off its feet. BMO Field’s West Stand swayed as Canadians jumped in delight. After having so many chances to get to know the team this past year, they fans are now smitten.

The hectic schedule was of course also something to be tamed. Herdman has done so spectacularly. Of the 23 games before Sunday, Canada had won 16 and drawn four, losing just three times, each by a single goal.

That Davies, the team’s best player, missed seven of the 14 qualifiers and spent Sunday screaming his support on social media from Munich, tells you how Herdman coaxed so much from so many.

Canada 2021-22 are not Leicester City 2015-16. The international and club games are now distant cousins and the latter’s Premier League title was a far larger shock than Herdman’s team reaching the World Cup. But some similarities are striking. A counter-attacking style confounding vaunted opponents. An unheralded defence, thought a weakness, turning into a strength as veterans and new faces raised their game. A core, yes, but around them, a fluid cast who leaned into a ‘next man up’ mantra.

Now they are all up, to a height not seen for more than a generation. It means a new era for football in Canada. And for Concacaf? The continental plates have shifted in a way that is unlikely to be temporary. Canada will co-host the 2026 World Cup, and the team’s best players (Davies, David, Buchanan) are still young. Herdman has scouted eligible recruits too. Now he has the carrot of back-to-back World Cups to dangle. North American football feels changed utterly.

As if to remind everyone just how far they had come, Herdman sent captain Atiba Hutchison on with a half hour to go on Sunday. The 39-year-old midfielder, in his 20th season with the national team, was showered with affection from the stands as the sun came back out.

“You know what … you can play in a Champions League final, Canadians can play for Bayern Munich and now we’re going to World Cups,” Herdman said as he rubbed champagne from his eyes after being drenched by Borjan. “Canada is a football nation. You better believe it and we’re going to keep coming. We’re only getting started.

“It’s just belief, absolute belief. The people behind this team, the team behind the team. We’ve been through some tough times. It hasn’t been easy. But we’ve done it. I’m just happy for these lads. When I first took over and I said we’re going to go a World Cup, I don’t think they believed us. All of these fans, they’ve waited, they’ve waited and hung in with us … and we’re going.”

The industrious Junior Hoilett added a third and Adrian Mariappa turned one into his own net in the last 10 minutes but as the flurries of snow returned and the Canadian bench streamed on to the field at full-time, the scoreline seemed almost irrelevant.

Where are Canada? They’re right here.