There are moments in life when your trajectory has changed and you didn’t sense the shift — only later do you realize how much that choice, or chance encounter, or kind word really mattered. There are other, rarer moments when you can feel, even as they’re unfolding around you, that something cataclysmic has happened. A different future has been made possible. A closed door has opened.
When Alphonso Davies scored that goal against Panama in Toronto in October — in front of a stadium filled with fans who were flush with disbelief, and then, after an emphatic 4-1 Canadian win, with a new belief — it was hard not to think: just maybe. Maybe, after all the years of near-misses and never-had-the-chances, maybe, for the first time since 1986, Canada’s men will survive CONCACAF’s war of attrition to take on the world next year in Qatar at the FIFA World Cup.
Friday night in Edmonton, Canada will reach the halfway point of the final stage of its head-turning World Cup qualification drive. The men will face Costa Rica, the only team they have yet to play. After the last round of games next March, the top three teams will qualify for Qatar; fourth place will still have a chance after an inter-continental playoff. Right now, Canada sits third. The Costa Ricans, coming off a close loss to the Americans, are dangerous in fifth.
But the Canadians are soaring after one of the most triumphant nights in the team’s recent and not-so-recent memory, cemented by Davies and his ridiculous sprint, steal, dribble, shot, and country-wide celebration. It was perhaps the most transcendent soccer goal ever scored by a Canadian man. It might even prove the goal that changed everything — the goal that, one day, will see Canadians asking, “Where were you when?”
WATCH / Breaking down Alphonso Davies’ goal against Panama:
Atiba Hutchinson, who has played for Canada for nearly 20 years but missed the Panama game because of injury, was watching from his bed in Istanbul, where he plays his club soccer. It was the middle of the night. His wife was asleep beside him.
“I jumped up screaming when he scored that goal,” Hutchinson said this week after his arrival in Edmonton. “My wife got pretty upset at the moment, because she was in a deep sleep. But it was a great goal … It was pretty much a goal that came from nothing.”
This team hasn’t come from nothing, exactly. These Canadian men are, at long last, a side of depth and generational talents: Davies, but also the inspiring likes of Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin, and more. (The words “and more” have not often followed a list of Canadian soccer stars.) After the win over Panama, they moved to No. 48 in FIFA’s global ranking, approaching their highest heights since the mid-1990s.
But as recently as February, this same team was ranked No. 73, between Guinea, which has never qualified for a World Cup, and the United Arab Emirates, which hasn’t qualified since 1990. Its rise since last winter has been meteoric.
WATCH / What to expect from Canada vs Costa Rica:
Canada and perennial qualifiers Mexico, who will face each other in Edmonton on Nov. 16, are the only CONCACAF teams that haven’t yet experienced defeat. Canada’s suddenly full-throttle offence is also tied with Mexico in goals scored. Watching the Panama game was almost otherworldly for long-time soccer fans in Canada. This is our team?
Head coach John Herdman, who led Canada’s successful women’s side for seven years before joining the less-than-successful men in 2018, said he’d “never had a better night in football.” After the final whistle, the air crackled around him. He spoke like a man who had just received a battlefield promotion.
“Our country needs us to fight,” Herdman said. “I think you’re seeing this new Canada. We’re not going to be the peacekeepers. We’re not going to let people walk over us. We’re here to fight, and fight for this country’s dream of getting to Qatar. Whatever that takes.”
It will probably take a win against Costa Rica. (“A massive three points,” Herdman said this week.) A win will see Canada make the qualifying turn possibly in second place among the eight teams, depending on what the United States and Mexico do to each other on the same night, but at least still in third. Then the math becomes simple: This team will have to do only what it has already done, and it will have made what seemed close to impossible not long ago a brilliant reality.
A lot can happen between now and March, of course. There are many more tests ahead, none harder than next week’s game against Mexico. The Canadians have raised hopes and fallen short in qualifying eight times in a row.
But all of those disappointments, every last scrap of humiliation and heartbreak, happened before one magical night in Toronto, when Alphonso Davies decided to run the length of the field and open a door.
Now: Will the rest of Canada follow him through it?