Herdman: Canada are fighting to hit the Hexagonal

  • John Herdman discusses Canada’s fairytale win over USA

  • Up to 73rd in the FIFA Ranking, his sights are on qualification for Qatar 2022

  • The 44-year-old hails Alphonso Davies and Christine Sinclair

The wreck of the RMS Titanic was yet to be discovered off Newfoundland’s coast the last time Canada beat USA. No free trade agreement existed between the quarrelling neighbours. The Toronto Raptors didn’t exist. Sidney Crosby hadn’t even been conceived.

That was until the Canucks shook North American earth in October with a 2-0 victory in the Concacaf Nations League – their first defeat of the US since 1985. Its mastermind had been marked ‘madman’ merely 20 months earlier.

John Herdman had spent seven years – and this is a man renowned for doing 15-hour days – polishing the Canadian women’s national team into a vessel that voyaged to back-to-back Olympic bronzes and were being tipped to challenge the elite at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™. The Englishman relinquished the wheel to assume charge of its male counterpart, who hadn’t come close to reaching the FIFA World Cup™ since hotfooting on its stage for the only time at Mexico 1986.

Fast-forward two years and Herdman has won 75 per cent of his 16 matches – the record for a Canada coach was 50 per cent – and has soccer fever rippling from Yukon to Cape Spear. FIFA.com caught up with the avant-garde 44-year-old to discuss that mythical night in Toronto, their Qatar 2022 hopes, Alphonso Davies, watching Canada at France 2019 and Christine Sinclair.

FIFA.com: John, can you tell us about that historic victory over USA?

John Herdman: It was an amazing experience for the staff, players, fans. I remember watching one of the videos afterwards, the players were playing the drums and doing the big Iceland thunderclap with the fans. You looked at the expression on the face of some of the fans and you could see that they were in disbelief. I think it showcased the potential of this team.

What were the celebrations like in the dressing room afterwards?

I don’t go in very often – I tend to leave it to the players. But back at the hotel, we always give a few awards out for guys who have got their first caps. That was Liam Fraser, a 21-year-old, playing on the pitch he plays on for his club. He hadn’t been getting game time there. He came on in the ninth minute to play against the guy who’s taken his spot in the Toronto team (Michael Bradley), in a game where it’s a must-win for Canada. He out-performs him and we go on and win the match. Football fairy-stories. I got sprayed with quite a bit of beer – that’s all I’m saying!

What has that result done for Canadian soccer?

For the casual fan, it was one of those head-turning moments. But for us it was bittersweet. Going into the US three weeks later and losing that match, it was like we took a massive step forward as a country, in terms of belief, and then we got beat off them and didn’t qualify for the final four. I felt for the fans. Like England beating Germany… oh, I don’t need to go down that line (laughs). But for three weeks it made the casual fan sit up and say, ‘This Canadian team has announced itself.’ One of the most poignant moments was seeing one of Sportsnet's TV hosts (Alex Seixeiro) at the subway station, in a melee of fans singing O Canada, the national anthem, after the game. That’s what’s bubbling underneath this national team.

It’s part of the legacy that they want to leave, and I want to leave, to have those moments where you can stop a country. When World Cups come around and Canada’s not there, you have people with Greek, Portuguese, Italian, English, German shirts. We want to have more of those moments so people put that Canadian shirt on – one team, one shirt, connect the country from coast to coast. So when we saw that video it was an emotional one. I think that moment showed people that we’re not far off. Our ultimate goal is to qualify for the World Cup. Once we qualify for the World Cup, it will change this country forever in terms of the sporting landscape. It will unite the country.

Canada haven’t reached the final round of Concacaf qualifying since the France 1998 preliminaries, when they finished bottom of the Hexagonal. Can you make it to Qatar 2022?

Concacaf qualifying is really, really difficult. If European teams came and played in some of the environments you play in here, they would struggle. The firepower of the USA in 2018 [qualifying], their squad’s worth over 200 million dollars. It makes you realise the power of the crowd. The passion, the hunger, the pride when you go to those environments. They’re hostile places. The pitches aren’t what Alphonso Davies is used to playing on at Bayern Munich. The tackles are flying in. But I’m an eternal optimist. We’re fighting to hit the Hexagonal. If we keep believing and keep pushing, our time will come.

Davies has started 15 successive games for Bayern. Did you expect him to establish himself so quickly?

Yes. He’s got a very strong character. He’s a humble kid with great, really positive energy. I know how much of an influence his mum still has on him – he’s got a really strong family background. He’s fearless. He enjoys life and he tries to mix that on to a football field. He brings his natural creativity. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight – he’s dancing, he’s singing. He’s not frightened to show who he is, and he’ll do that on a football field.

Just how good can he become?

I think he’s showed that he’s one of the world’s brightest prospects. I think when you’re at Bayern Munich – starting, playing regularly – you must be one of the world’s best players. He’s playing as a 19-year-old for Bayern Munich in the Champions League. When it rolls off your tongue, you can’t help but smile… What an amazing Canadian story.

Jonathan David’s been doing really well in Belgium…

His first game for Canada, he came on and scored two goals. He became the youngest [debutant] scorer. He hasn’t stopped setting records for us since. He got the Golden Boot in the Gold Cup, and you have got to realise you’ve got players like [Raul] Jimenez there, Premier League players.

Ballou Tabla and Noble Okello have received considerable hype. Can you tell us about those two players?

Ballou, as a 15-, 16-year-old, he showed similar glimpses to Alphonso. He took his chance to head to Barcelona, and turned some heads in Europe. He’s back in Montreal and I think that’s fantastic. All of us are excited to see him in the MLS this season. He’s got the talent. Young Okello, he’s 6ft 6[ins], a central midfielder. You look at him, he’s Patrick Viera/Paul Pogba in terms of the profile. He’s been growing into that big frame of his and learning how to [combine] his football IQ with the physical gifts he has. The future’s bright for Noble and Ballou.

How did you feel watching Canada at France 2019?

It was emotional. A group of women invested seven years of their lives with me. Some of the relationships you build – in success and failure – are deep, deep relationships. We were working day to day – it wasn’t your typical international programme. So it’s tough when you’re not there and you want to be there and your heart’s there, but fortunately I had a distraction with the Gold Cup. The penalty goes in and Canada move into the quarter-finals and are on a roll. You know how football goes.

What do you think of Christine Sinclair?

She embodies Canada. She’s a fierce competitor, she loves winning, but she has humility. That’s what Canadians are renowned for. She’s an amazing human being. She could and should be a multi-millionaire, but she never asked for a penny more than her team-mates. She’s always put her team, her country first. You don’t meet many people like that in your life. She’s 36, she’s still playing at the highest level, still scoring goals. After 2015, she was written off by some people, but there she was, in front of 70,000 Brazilians in Rio, doing what Sinclair does: in the six-yard box, scoring the goal that got us another medal. A unique player. If you come to this country, there’s one woman that everyone knows: it’s Christine Sinclair. It was an absolute gift in my life to have the chance to work with her and I wish her all the best for the Olympics.