Canada is set to take the pitch and Nanaimo soccer fans are anticipating the start of the nation’s World Cup journey in Qatar.
Canada opens World Cup play against Belgium on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 11 a.m. Pacific Time.
Daragh Fitzgerald, Nanaimo United FC technical lead, said seeing Canada’s men’s national team qualifying for the tournament is “massive.” The women’s team has consistently performed on the world stage, including a gold medal at the 2020 Summer Games, but the men haven’t reached the same heights, he said.
Canada, ranked 41st by governing soccer body FIFA, is in Group F with strong competition consisting of second-ranked Belgium, 12th-ranked Croatia and 22nd-ranked Morocco, but Fitzgerald said Canada could surprise.
Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia upset perennial favourite Argentina 2-1, something Canada could draw inspiration from.
“It’s going to be difficult, but I think they’ll surprise a few people,” said Fitzgerald. “John Herdman, the coach, is known for being extremely organized and making it very difficult for teams to break them down. And they’ve got tons of patience. One thing Canada has is on the counterattack, they’re really, really quick. They have the tools to get results against these big teams, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get a draw … every now and again.”
Canada’s World Cup appearance is already creating buzz among youths which could have long-term effects on the growth of the game. Fitzgerald said coaches asked a group of young players last week if they knew what was coming up, and a seven-year-old girl went on for several minutes talking about the World Cup, Team Canada and a favourite player.
“It was amazing – that awareness wasn’t there before when it came to soccer,” he said. “It’s for sure making an impact.”
Tim Lewis, a Vancouver Island University history professor, said although the men’s side wasn’t able to build on its only World Cup appearance at the 1986 tournament, he’s seeing a modern renaissance of the beautiful game. He credits the rise of Major League Soccer.
“It’s becoming a place where more and more Canadians can play professional soccer starting in North America and if you do really well, of course, the European teams will come calling,” said Lewis. “Slowly but surely, soccer is becoming a more impactful sport, a more front-of-conscious sport for Canadians and every success, first with the women’s team and now potentially with the men’s, will just add to that. Countries rally behind success stories, that’s one of the reasons why hockey has been such a big deal. We’re really good at it, right?”
The World Cup effect is being also felt by businesses. Sales at Kirby Source for Sports in Nanaimo usually consists of the odd person buying memorabilia of their favourite team around World Cup time, said Zack Gilbey, store manager, but the game has changed with Team Canada competing.
“This is the first time we’ve really brought in a lot of World Cup stuff, because Canada is in it,” he said. “Before, maybe we did some scarves or tuques or hats … when [Canada] qualified last year, there was a huge buzz about it. People were asking, ‘Can we get it?’ and stuff has been so hard to get. We finally just got it a couple of weeks ago and so far it’s been checking out.”
Hosting viewing parties for all Canada games will be difficult, as some occur in the daytime on weekdays, but Nanaimo United FC plans to show the Canada-Croatia game on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 8 a.m. at its Beban Park clubhouse.
“Then we’re going to host some of the bigger games at the clubhouse over the weekends, as well, before the World Cup finishes,” said Fitzgerald.
Many people have questioned FIFA awarding Qatar the World Cup, considering that nation’s human rights record, and Fitzgerald is among the critics.
“The fact that it was given to Qatar is pretty appalling if we’re being honest and I think most people of good conscience are kind of watching the World Cup [with that in mind],” he said. “Yes, we might enjoy the soccer, but it would be far more enjoyable if it was somewhere … that really could’ve used it.”