RAYYAN, Qatar — Canada reappeared at the World Cup after 36 years Wednesday and brought freshness, verve, speed, quickness, spark, sparkle, gumption, derring-do, cosmopolitanism, the really cool national anthem sung throatily by many players and staff, penetrations, crosses, through balls and competence but not any goals.
It made gaudy Belgium and its golden generation look aging for the possible reason that gaudy Belgium and its golden generation might be aging. The presence of a fresh foe full of unapologetic strivers made Belgium look as if it was dwelling in the fumes of quarterfinal and semifinal showings in the past two World Cups. At moments it almost seemed to creak audibly on the cool, clear night, even if 40,432 at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium maybe drowned out the sound. The star Belgian playmaker of Manchester City employment, 31-year-old Kevin De Bruyne, had glumness in his voice when he said afterward: “No, I don’t think I played a great game. No, I don’t know why I have the trophy [for man of the match].”
He said his team left the pitch too spacious, as Manager Roberto Martínez said, “We made the pitch too big.”
The whole thing led to the manager who technically lost, Canada’s John Herdman, huddling with his team while brimming with passion and saying, “You’ve shown that you can live here!” True, that. Herdman said later on: “I’m proud of the lads. The effort was unreal . . . And if we can be ruthless in the attack, we’ll get something out of these matches. This group’s wide open.” He jokingly recommended “four days of shooting practice” up ahead.
The first question to Martínez, the Belgium manager since way back in 2016, concerned whether this had been in fact the worst big game of his Belgium tenure.
“Were we technically the worst game? Yes,” he said.
“Was it the worst game? No,” he said, because a win makes it preclude that distinction.
To clarify, Belgium did open Group F with a win and sprang atop the group that also includes Croatia and Morocco, who drew, 0-0, because it hasn’t let go of its know-how. “To win when you don’t play well, it doesn’t come by accident,” Martínez said. Belgium benefited from Canada’s festival of bold bids decorated with errant shots, and then it caught the only play it would end up needing.
That came on 43 minutes, when Toby Alderweireld, the 33-year-old in his 125th cap, sent a long and pretty thing up the pitch maybe 60 yards and smack into a place it could prove useful. There, Michy Batshuayi, the 29-year-old often dubbed “Batsman,” didn’t corral it so much as understand it, charging to the box and taking it quickly at the outset of its second hop with defenders Richie Laryea and Kamal Miller breathing upon him, then drilling it with haste to the back right corner of the goal.
Unfairness filled the air.
Canada, with its bright-bright 22-year-old phenomenon, Alphonso Davies, looking healed from hamstring injury and moving about electrically, must have looked far different than what a mere 14,200 spectators saw on June 9, 1986, in Irapuato, Mexico. That day, in their previous World Cup match, the Canadians finished their stay with a 2-0 loss to, yeah, the Soviet Union, and they left that World Cup both winless and goalless.
They’re still seeking that first goal, and you have to think they will get it here, and they almost got it in the single-digit minutes. That’s when Tajon Buchanan whipped a shot from a crowd inside the box, and legendary 30-year-old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois grabbed it, but VAR review showed that Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco had handed it, and suddenly Canada had a penalty on about nine minutes, even as it took about halfway to forever for the referee to whistle it underway.
Davies took it, and slid it left just as Courtois lunged right to meet it, repelling it back into the box, where Davies kind of whacked at it again but skied a suboptimal chance. With that, Courtois bounded up all chesty like some pharaoh of the goalmouth, and his teammates surrounded him with admiration and gratitude.
Then his team carried on slowly. “You need to give huge respect to Canada’s performance,” Martínez said. “We knew they are that dynamic, that aggressive.” He called them “a modern team” on which “everyone defends” and “everyone attacks.” He also cited the oddball timing of this 22nd World Cup, with its limited time for team re-cohesion, and said: “Today is our fifth day together. You see that the format was going to be about the national teams growing through the group phases. If you can win while you are doing that, it’s going to be an incredible opportunity.”
Yet before Belgium could go into its next few days of “self-criticism and analysis,” as Martínez put it, Canada had kept at it, on its way to a 19-6 advantage in shots. Shots went wide right. Shots went wide left. Shots went over the goal most of all. Courtois dove right and stopped Cyle Larin’s header from Alistair Johnston’s fine cross on 79 minutes. Davis recovered beautifully from the penalty and earned Herdman’s assessment as “brilliant tonight” and “way more disciplined” while showing “courage” and being “resilient.”
All of that and more like it carried on all through the first half and through most of the second, until the whole thing became an entertaining reminder that life isn’t fair.
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The World Cup continues with Group G winner Brazil taking on Group H runner-up South Korea in a round-of-16 game in Doha, Qatar. The winner of this game will play Croatia in a quarterfinal on Friday after the Croatians beat Japan in penalty kicks earlier Monday. Follow our live coverage for the latest news, analysis and highlights.
USMNT: The U.S. men’s national team fell to the Netherlands, 3-1, on Saturday in the opening match of the round of 16. The United States has not won a World Cup knockout match since 2002, when it beat regional rival Mexico in the round of 16 in South Korea.
Knock out round schedule: A World Cup group stage filled with shocking upsets and dramatic turnarounds will now give way to a knockout round that promises more surprises.
Perspective: “The incremental progress was clear, but more than that, the players performed in a matter that indicates they are on a path to immense growth. There is a cohesion and energy about the United States that should inspire belief.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.