MontrealCanada – Rocco Placentino says it still feels surreal.
Less than two years ago, Ismael Kone played football for CS Saint-Laurent, a semi-professional team in Montreal, where Placentino, a former midfielder with Montreal Impact, is the sporting director.
And now, at just 20 years old, Kone will compete on the sport’s biggest stage in front of tens of thousands of spectators at the 2022 World Cup.
“We are very proud of him, and it opens a door for youth around the world to say, ‘Maybe one day it could be me.’ He has become a role model for many young people in a short period of time, that’s for sure,” Placentino told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from Qatar.
Although Canada impressed last week with a strong showing against Belgium in their opening game of the tournament and scored their first ever World Cup goal against Croatia on Sunday, the team lost both games and will not advance to the round of 16.
But for Placentino and many others in the sport, the measure of success for the Canadian men’s team goes beyond wins and losses – and there’s a lot to be optimistic about.
“I can only see us moving forward. I think this is just the beginning, especially now that we are hosting the World Cup [with the United States and Mexico] in 2026, so it just gets better and better,” said Placentino. “I think it’s very exciting for football in Canada.”
“We should be proud of what we’ve done” 👏
— Soccer Canada (@CanadaSoccerEN) November 28, 2022
Long road to the World Cup
The Canadian men’s team has competed in a World Cup just once before, losing three group stage matches in Mexico in 1986, and its record over the years has been marked by more struggles than achievements.
In contrast, Canada’s women’s team has achieved tremendous international success and won Olympic gold under the leadership of superstar Christine Sinclair, the world’s all-time top scorer among women and men. Currently the team number seven in the FIFA world rankings ahead of next year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“While the men’s team quietly suffered, lost and yearned to cross that elusive global threshold, the women’s team changed the game and transformed the landscape of Canadian football,” journalist Harley Rustad recently wrote in the news magazine The Walrus.
Still, those close to the game have said the men’s qualification for this year’s World Cup is helping to change perceptions and build a footballing audience in a country traditionally dominated by hockey.
John DeBenedictis, executive director of the National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada, told Al Jazeera that the team is gaining valuable experience by taking on “highest-rated opponents” in Qatar and that their prospects can only improve.
“I think Canada will be there from now on,” said DeBenedictis, author of the book The Last 9 Seconds: The Secrets to Scoring Goals on the Last Touch. “This is just a good start.”
He added that television commercials featuring some of the Canadian team’s top stars, including Alphonso Davies, who scored Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal in 67 seconds after their game with Croatia, are also helping to inspire young Canadian players.
“Alphonso is in almost every commercial, so there’s something to strive for,” he said.
Push for another scoop
That was echoed by former Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame president Les Jones, who said the team’s show in Qatar will encourage Canadian youth to take the sport more seriously because “they’ve seen what they can achieve”.
“We have a lot of very talented kids at the academy level, and I think it will encourage them to work harder and develop their skills,” he told Al Jazeera.
While Canada may lack shooting accuracy, Jones said he believes Canada has shown they can “compete with established football nations”. He said playing on the World Cup stage also gets more Canadian footballers noticed by established clubs and gives them a better chance of playing at the top level abroad.
That means at the next World Cup “the youngsters on the team will be four years older and four years wiser and will be better technically,” Jones said. “If we think Canada has played well now, I think you’ll see a marked improvement in 2026.”
Before their foray into the 2022 World Cup comes to an end, Canada will meet Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on Thursday. It will be a last chance for Canada to achieve another first: the team has never won or drawn at a World Cup, lost all five games they have ever played and thus never earned a point in the group stage.
Getting a win or even a draw against a confident Moroccan team will be no small feat as the Atlas Lions head into the game and are still buzzing about a surprise 2-0 victory over Belgium, who are ranked second in the world .
But Canadian defender Alistair Johnston expressed confidence at a press conference on Monday.
“We have a really good young group, and it really makes a difference to score that first goal,” he said. “It changes something mentally.”
Johnston said earning a point with a group stage draw or three points with a win would also help Canada in other competitions, including the CONCACAF Gold Cup and future World Cups.
“To get a first win or a first draw, a first result, just to be able to say you did that and were a part of that just helps break down some of those mental barriers,” the defender said. , who are reportedly nearing a deal to join Celtic FC in the Scottish Premiership.
It would also show that the Canadian team belongs on the international stage, he said.
“We have been fighting for this for a long time, [for] that feeling of belonging,” Johnston told reporters. “So a result against Morocco I think would really go a long way to reinforce that.”