For the first time in 26 years, Canada is catching World Cup fever.
Every four years there are clusters of outbreaks when Canadians with ties to other countries see their teams on the pitch in soccer’s greatest spectacle, but this is different.
Canada has made the 32-team cut for the country’s second-ever FIFA World Cup and just like in 1986 the boys sporting the red maple leaf this week in Qatar are colossal underdogs.
Last time they were involved, Canada didn’t score a goal in any of its three games and finished 24th out of 24. Bob Lenarduzzi, Carl Valentine, Jamie Lowry, Ian Bridge and company held powerhouse France to a single goal that first game and for Canadians it was seen as a small victory.
Long before he became head coach of the UNBC Timberwolves men’s soccer team, a 15-year-old Steve Simonson was riveted to his TV screen watching the ’86 World Cup in the basement of his parents’ home in Ottawa.
“I remember the excitement of it,” said Simonson. “I think the commentator was Steve Armitage. I do remember the blonde hair of Ian Bridge and fortunately I got to coach with him years later with the Victoria Highlanders when he coached the men’s team and I was an assistant.
“We didn’t win a game and we didn’t score but it was great. I’ve gone on to meet several people who played in that tournament because a lot of them were West Coast people. The pride they had in representing the country… and now to see it again at the Word Cup, I’m really excited about Wednesday’s game.”
Canada opens its Group F tournament Wednesday (11 a.m. PT) against No.2-ranked Belgium.
Ranked 41st in the world, Canada will also be in tough in their game Sunday (8 a.m. PT) against 12th-ranked Croatia. Canada, the CONCACAF champions, will finish up the first round next Thursday (7 a.m.) against 22nd-ranked Morocco.
Backed by Bayern Munich star forward Alphonso Davies, Lille Olympique Sporting Club striker Jonathan David, FC Porto midfielder Stephen Eustaquio and Hatayspor FC (Turkey) fullback Samuel Adekugbe, Canada is fielding a team of 15 internationals on its 26-player roster.
For the first time, Canada has Canadian Premier League alumni on the national team roster for two of its players - defender Joel Waterman and goalie James Pantemis. Waterman, a native of Aldergrove, played for the Trinity Western Spartans in 2018 when they came to Masich Place Stadium to face UNBC.
Team Canada coach John Herdman took over the men’s national team right after he led the women to Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2020 and with Herdman at the helm they’ve made huge strides.
“I believe we’ve had one of the biggest moves of any country in the world in our ranking increase - we’re trending in such a right direction and we’ve won CONCACAF and beat some big teams,” said Simonson, 51, this season’s U SPORTS coach of the year.
“The talent pool on our team is high. Herdman has proven it, first with the women and now with the men, that he’s a top coach, so it’s just an exciting time. We’re in with the best of the best right now. The exposure certainly can’t hurt our sport. Even non-soccer fans take an interest in it and I would say to someone who is a sports fan, take a look because it can be really exciting.”
Brad Stewart grew up in a soccer family. His dad Gogie was a three-time senior national champion forward from Vancouver who played in the World Cup qualifier in 1957 and came within a game of qualifying for the ’58 World Cup. Long before he joined UNBC as an assistant coach in 2010, when they played in the B.C. college league, Stewart played with the Seattle Sounders of the North American Soccer League from 1970-73 and he knows how high the odds are stacked against Canada making it to the World Cup stage.
“It’s incredibly hard – soccer in Europe is what hockey is to Canada and until we get to that mentality we’ll probably still be lagging somewhat,” said the 67-year-old Stewart. “But that doesn’t mean we stop trying and this group we’ve put together have made it. I think that’s because most of them are playing (professionally) in Europe at a high level. It’s game time you need to get better and they’re getting that.
“My heart wants Canada to do well but my money isn’t going to go with them. I think Brazil should be there and England looks good, so England is who I’m going to root for if Canada doesn’t get anywhere.”
Canada Soccer will receive from FIFA $10-15 million for qualifying for the World Cup. With Canada co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with the U.S. and Mexico, Stewart says Canada has never been in a better position to benefit from being at the forefront of the sport.
“When the United States applied for the World Cup (as hosts) in ’94 they weren’t going to be second-best and put a lot of money into their programs from youth all the way up and we need to do the same thing here,” said Stewart. “We made the World Cup and let’s put more money into youth development and see where it goes. The U.S. is a perfect example.”
The Timberwolves will gather on the UNBC campus Wednesday morning at the Wolf Club at the Northern Sport Centre to watch the Canada-Belgium game and pubs in city will also be hosting watch parties.