When asked what Canadian football needs to get to the next level, it’s fair to say that David Edgar is clear in his mind: “We need to qualify for a World Cup. Simple as that.”
The Canucks defender, talking on a cold English morning outside Sheffield United’s training complex, is frank about the men’s national team as they prepare for their next round of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers: They need to take the step up.
Having seen the women’s side consistently keep expectations for Canadian football high on the world stage, he’s looking to follow suit: “We as a men’s team need to start achieving the same results because the fan base is there,” the 28-year-old insisted. “We’re going in the right direction but we have to qualify – there can’t be any more near-misses.”
After an impressive start to the current campaign, taking four points from their opening pair of games, the foundations for that dream are there. Since qualifying for their only World Cup back in 1986, a year before Edgar was born, a USA 1994 play-off defeat on penalties to Australia is the only time they’ve truly been close to earning another ticket.
The growth of the game in Canada promises much, though. Fully home-grown talent is now the norm, whereas Edgar’s only real pathway to success was via Europe. Fortunately for the Ontario native, his passion for the game had flowered from English roots.
His father – a superbly-moustachioed goalkeeper who played for Newcastle United amongst others – and mother were both from England’s north-east. With Edgar both a talented ice hockey player and footballer, he eventually had to decide whether to follow the call of a country crazy for the rink or a family mad for the Magpies.
A summer trip to England saw the 13-year-old Edgar convinced football was the one for him and the opportunity to join his family’s beloved Newcastle sealed the deal. Shipped off to live with his grandmother, he quickly adapted to life in the north of England, now considering himself an “adopted Geordie”, even if the region’s distinctive accent has at most only rounded the edges of his Canadian twang.
A U-20 stalwart
Three years later and he was already winging his way to his first FIFA tournament, and the fact it was the FIFA U-20 World Cup just shows how respected the 16-year-old’s talents were. Though he didn’t get on the field at United Arab Emirates 2003, it did lead him to become one of just three players to be selected for three FIFA U-20 World Cups. When 140 have made it to two, it shows quite how impressive an achievement it is.
“It’s a nice stat to have,” he said with a chuckle, more than aware of his place in that exclusive club. “It was a great experience and it was the furthest any Canadian team had got – the quarter-finals – taking Spain to extra-time. I remember there was a boy playing in centre midfield there and I said to myself ‘he’s going to be a player’. It was Andres Iniesta.”
Brushes with future World Cup winners out of the way, he played in all three games at Netherlands 2005 and on home soil in 2007 – a great experience amongst “a massive buzz” despite three straight defeats. But returning home seven years after he left gave Edgar a stark vision of how the nation’s taste for the game had grown, as well as the foundations it was now built on.
There’s a buzz about the place, a buzz about the country. You know what, we’ve got nothing to lose
“By 2007 we were playing in Toronto FC’s home ground, and they didn’t exist when I left – that was a pipe dream for Canadian soccer,” he explained, with the side the first of three Major League Soccer sides now from north of the USA border. “There’s an outlet for all this talent to go to, rather than being told you have to go to Europe. Now we have players who say ‘I want to play for Toronto FC or the Vancouver Whitecaps', which is fantastic for Canadian football and raising the game.”
And eight years on from the U-20 World Cup, the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 raised the bar again. The tournament was the most-attended in history, with 54,000 packing in to see the hosts face England. While Edgar admits with a laugh that there wasn’t too much in the way of split loyalties – “it was a tough one, but I’m always going to cheer for Canada” – the quantity of fans was eye-popping for him.
“It was the numbers going to games [that stood out],” he said. “It just puts things in perspective, you’ve got people there who want to see the game grow and with the women’s results the women get the support.” Which brings us back to targeting that watershed moment: World Cup qualification.
The last year has produced highs and lows for the side: conceding just twice in their last nine competitive games, plus a win over Honduras and draw in El Salvador, tempered with an early exit at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Ultimately, though, Edgar sees growth in the side.
“The Gold Cup was frustrating,” he reflected. “Without scoring any goals we still played well. The manager now has got us very compact and very organised, the Gold Cup was almost a transition building into the World Cup qualifiers.”
That started in earnest with the 1-0 victory over Honduras, a game shrouded in narrative following Canada’s 8-1 defeat that denied Edgar and Co. a spot in the hexagonal stage for the first time this century. “There was a lot said about [the Honduras game], it wasn’t revenge but when the final whistle went… I played in that defeat and it was probably the toughest point of my career.”
Now they face their toughest challenge, back-to-back meetings with Mexico, having not beaten El Tri in a World Cup qualifier since the 1970s, while they’ve not even got a point away in Edgar’s life-time. Even having accepted Mexico’s quality, there’s a confidence there that could be enough to drive them on to something special. “There’s a buzz about the place, a buzz about the country. You know what, we’ve got nothing to lose.”