After winning the Copa America, the Canadian men’s national team may never look the same again

ARLINGTON, Texas – One by one, the Canadian players left their locker room, some arm in arm, others with an open can of cold beer in their hands.

Ismael Kone, who scored the winning penalty for Canada in a dramatic quarter-final against Venezuela, carried a loudspeaker above his head blaring hip-hop music as he walked past dozens of stunned Venezuelan journalists.

The strange, new feeling it represented was unmistakable.

Less than two years ago, Canada was eliminated by Croatia in their second match of the 2022 World Cup. After being humiliated by a more experienced team, the Croatian team stormed through the mixed zone — where media wait to talk to players after a match — in Qatar, blasting music from a speaker to remind spectators who had won.

And as Kone and his teammates danced with gusto, the feeling Canada had longed for became clear: unbridled and deserved pride and joy.

For years, this Canadian team has been defined by promise. Its players are rich in talent but devoid of experience. Its biggest wins have come in CONCACAF, but outside the region (and even in tournament knockout rounds inside the region) Canada stumbled. They would learn the hard way, with Croatian pop songs in their heads.

But with a signature victory under their belt, Canada can proudly sing its own tune. This is finally the team it has long wanted to be.

Canadian players celebrate victory over Venezuela (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

At the Copa America, Canada (ranked 48 in the world) lost 2-0 to semi-final opponents Argentina (ranked 1), beat Peru (ranked 31) 1-0, drew 0-0 with Chile (ranked 40) and eliminated Venezuela (ranked 54) on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It was Canada’s first penalty shootout win since beating Martinique in the 2002 Gold Cup quarter-finals a generation ago.

The story of Canada’s forays into Central America has usually ended the same way: with them returning home with their tails between their legs. A scrappy, crushing 8-1 defeat in Honduras in 2012, when Canada needed just a draw to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying, was the norm, not the outlier.

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But this time, Canada didn’t succumb to the noise. No more learning moments. After years of disappointment, the win over Venezuela showed they had developed the emotional strength needed to win tournaments.

“I don’t think people realize how hard (Canada’s games) are,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “We’re against everything. It takes all those other experiences, those games in the World Cup that we lose, to get here.”

What Canada has endured for years has been necessary for their evolution. For generations, this team was consumed by a lack of interest, largely born of a lack of results and the dominance of hockey as one of the country’s national sports. A trip to the 1986 World Cup, Canada’s first, is more of a mirage than a memory in the minds of Canadians. Now, they have a World Cup on home soil to look forward to in less than two years.

And we have to separate the men’s team from the women’s team here. The latter has experienced the kind of success – including an Olympic gold medal in 2021 – that has overtaken their male counterparts.

But as the women’s team rose, the men’s team declined. The sport grew in popularity in the 2000s. Unfortunately, the Canadian men’s team didn’t produce enough results to make them relevant to a wider audience.


Canada failed to impress at the 2022 World Cup (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Things looked different from 2018 onwards under John Herdman. There was a new star in Alphonso Davies and a progressive culture that made Canadians take notice. Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was a start, but three disappointing defeats in Qatar led to rumours of “the same old Canada” in bars and basements across the country.

What use is a process without results, especially in tournament football?

Winning on penalties in what was effectively an away game – in front of a very pro-Venezuela crowd in Texas – could be the biggest leap forward for Canada in the broader conversation in the country.

“We’re reaching a bigger audience than just the soccer-crazy crowd in Canada. And that’s what you want to do,” defender Alistair Johnston said. “We’re inspiring a lot of people and a lot of people are really tuning in, thinking, ‘Wow, this team is not only reaching these tournaments, they’re competing.’ That’s something the guys can be proud of.”

The victory would and should change the discourse surrounding this team.

Canada were without Tajon Buchanan, their best player at the 2022 World Cup, after a freak broken leg in training cast a shadow over this team’s chances. Instead of letting it defeat them, it energized them. When Jacob Shaffelburg pulled out a Buchanan jersey to celebrate his goal, Canada’s resolve reached new heights.

(Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

The talent is certainly there. The sport is played by more children in Canada than hockey, it is relatively cheap to participate in, and a diverse population can combine its roots in soccer-loving countries with Canada’s ever-growing soccer fields.

Yet the Canadian Premier League was only founded in 2019. Canada’s three Major League Soccer teams and their respective youth academies are still just emerging from their embryonic stages.

Talent will still slip through the net.

That’s what almost happened to Kone, who grew up playing in parks around Montreal instead of in organized academies. Or Shaffelburg, who had more reasons than not to become a Canadian international without the proper development resources in his province, Nova Scotia.

Kone secures Canada’s place in the semi-finals (Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

Still, the dramatic win over Venezuela was a reminder of what people in Canadian soccer have been saying for years: There’s more to soccer in Canada than just Alphonso Davies, and there’s more to this team than just its stars.

Because this team feels different. Where they didn’t earn respect in the past, they should now.

“Probably not,” said Canada’s new head coach Jesse Marsch when asked if Canada gets enough respect. “But it takes time. You get respect in a lot of different ways, but the best way to earn respect is by winning games.

“When you have these moments, it’s important to stay focused and capture the energy around the team. We did that. Within the group, there is focus and concentration to keep going.”

Even with Argentina (once again) in the semifinals, Canada can now feel like they belong in that game in a way they never could before. That means Canada’s national team may never look the same again.

“I think people need to realize that (Canada’s success) doesn’t just happen,” Osorio said. “You have to learn and you have to move forward. And we did that. And that’s why we’re where we are today.”

(Top photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

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