John Herdman fell in love with football thanks to Diego Maradona
Started out at an academy that cherishes Brazil footballing values
Out to create a football culture in Canada, a co-host of the FIFA World Cup 2026™
The year is 1986 and a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina have just beaten England in the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finals at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Watching the match back in England is an 11-year-old boy by the name of John Herdman, tears streaming down his face. Fast forward 35 years to 2021 and Herdman finds himself pitchside at the legendary stadium, coaching Canada in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico, memories flooding through his head.
He came away from that game feeling proud of his players, and not without good reason. The Englishman has rebuilt Canadian football, converting the men’s national team into the sensations of the CONCACAF qualifying competition for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. En route to topping the standings, the Canadians beat both Mexico and USA and are now hoping for more success in the world finals. “Being there was surreal. I remember watching Diego Maradona against England with my dad in the front room. It was the moment I fell in love with football,” said Herdman in an interview with Sky Sports, comparing his two Estadio Azteca experiences. “It can be a daunting place but I was proud of how the team went for Mexico from the first minute.”
Maradona planted a seed that has borne rich fruit, albeit at the side of the pitch rather than on it. After trying and failing to make it as a player, Herdman has found his true vocation as a coach.
Central to his journey to the dugout was a trip he made to Brazil when he was still learning the ropes. It was there, in the land of the five-time world champions, that he discovered that football is art. His learnings from that trip opened doors to him in England, firstly at an academy focused on the values of Brazilian football, and then as a development coach at Sunderland’s youth academy.
Herdman was destined for success outside his home country, however. Impressing as New Zealand’s national women’s team coach first of all, he then went to Canada and achieved great things with their women’s team.
To say that he has turned Canadian football on its head is no exaggeration. Not content with catapulting the country’s women into the global elite with back-to-back Olympic bronze medals and a Pan American Games gold medal, he has brought unity and harmony to the men’s team in his four years in the post, turning them into a formidable outfit.
"He’s been a huge factor in what we’ve done. He's very good at building team chemistry, and he’s very humble. There are a lot of coaches who seem to want to seem bigger than their team, but he always gives us the credit and prepares us in such detail for every game. Kamal Miller
“He knows what he’s doing. He’s got different tactics for every game.” Jonathan David
“He’s come up with a new kind of football for Canada. We have spirit, belief and energy.” Milan Borjan
Rebuilding brick by brick, Herdman changed the country’s football philosophy. Explaining his approach, he said: “One of the comments was that we did not have the heart when it really mattered. It became all about me too quickly. We were going to start with some tactical work, but tactics mean nothing if they do not trust the person next to them or their coach.”
A good World Cup campaign will be crucial for Canada. The country is co-hosting the 2026 world finals with Mexico and the USA, and their English coach has much more weighing on his shoulders than helping his players find a way to goal.
“We need World Cups to change the culture,” he added. “This country is ready to build off a World Cup. It is ready to go.”