In football, experience teaches. Japan is about to play in its seventh consecutive Men’s World Cup. Canada is about to play for the first time in 36 years. Good teams, good players, have a nose for uncertainty, for uncertainty, for weakness.
It took Japan eight minutes to find it in Canada.
The Canadians needed the rest of the game to show that they also have strengths.
Thursday’s 2-1 victory for Canada in Dubai – a final pick-me-up for both teams before they embark on their World Cup campaigns in Qatar – didn’t exactly take place in a cauldron. There were maybe 1,000 fans at Al Maktoum Stadium. The evening air was warm and still rather than electric.
Even with no nerves or pressures, the myriad little rifts between Canada’s best players and the best in the world began to open.
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Milan Borjan, the goalkeeper who guided Canada through its epic qualifying run with his stellar saves and charismatic leadership, has a fundamental flaw. He’s not good with his feet. He is 35 years old, and that hard fact cannot be confirmed. He is who he is.
Before the Canadians really had a chance to find their rhythm, he cleared the clearance of a fairly easy ball and failed to kick it to the half. Head coach John Herdman, pacing the sidelines like a man waiting for an important call, stopped his perpetual motion machine to tell Borjan to settle down.
The Japanese, who had seen so much of the field, had already mounted their precision counter. They cut through the middle of the field and Yuki Soma neatly handled a long through ball and fired it in.
That’s how the game works at this level. It is designed to expose you to all that you are.
Including the size of your heart. The Canadians showed some of their admirable bravery and regrouped in response to the early blow in the 21st minute. Steven Vitória fired in a corner that was unusually cleared by the Japanese.
Everybody makes mistakes.
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And in the closing seconds of the second half, deep into added time, the Japanese made another. Richie Laryea was brought down in the penalty area and the Canadians were awarded a penalty.
Lucas Cavallini lined up to get it. He was lucky that the Japanese goalkeeper fell just enough for his unwise Panenka, the ball spun off his glove and fell into the net.
It was an unlikely, happy ending to a sloppy game – and the result should not disguise the mistakes that came to light.
GOAL! Steven Vitória equalizes from a corner kick! 🍁
In the 35th minute, Borjan gave another gift to the Japanese, this time playing a short ball and getting slightly crossed with Kamal Miller. In that case, Miller blocked the resulting dangerous shot, and the giveaway went unpunished.
Back in Qatar, more notes were taken: Force the ball back to Borjan and then take it away from him.
That was already the script when Canada played a friendly against Uruguay in September. He was relentlessly pressured.
That time, Canada went down 2-0. Thereafter, an optimistic narrative was constructed by many observers, especially Herdman. He claimed the game was within his team’s reach. If only the Canadians had finished their chances, they had a chance to win.
They didn’t. That’s the difference between good and great, between upstart and veteran.
But sometimes in life, luck makes up for the gap.
It should come as no surprise if the Canadians fall a little short against the more vaunted sides waiting. Especially Belgium and Croatia – which are teams supposed beat Canada. They are better in every way. They will almost certainly finish what Japan couldn’t.
That doesn’t mean Canada’s inspired and inspiring group of men shouldn’t be enjoying every moment in the sun they’ve earned, including Thursday night’s lucky win.
The only tragedy will be if Canada fails to seize the one opportunity it will have in the coming days and weeks: to stand alongside the greatest players on the planet, to be honest about the ways in which they are special, and to resolve that next time we will rely less on luck and more on ourselves.
Episode 4 of Soccer North arrives Friday TBEN Gem, CBCSports.ca and the TBEN Sports YouTube channel.