Canada currently lead Concacaf’s FIFA World Cup™ qualifying race
Showdowns against Honduras, USA and El Salvador beckon in the next week
Key defender Kamal Miller discusses the team’s rise and what a World Cup would mean
For all the success stories written across the football world in 2021, none of FIFA’s 211 member associations enjoyed a year to match Canada’s.
Olympic gold for the country’s women would have made it an Annus Mirabilis regardless of how the men fared, especially with decades of male mediocrity having taught Canadians the value of modest expectations.
As it is though, a FIFA World Cup™ year has dawned with John Herdman’s side unbeaten in the final stage of qualifying and perched at the summit of Concacaf’s standings. Back-to-back wins over Costa Rica and Mexico in November also confirmed the Canucks as the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking’s most-improved team of 2021, capping a rise from 94th to 40th during Herdman’s time in charge.
Kamal Miller has been a mainstay of the side throughout that remarkable ascent, and has earned rave reviews for his performances at the heart of Canada’s defence. The 24-year-old centre-back is part of a new generation resetting the nation’s expectations and, with three crucial qualifiers looming, he is desperate to add a fairy-tale ending to his team’s qualifying story.
FIFA.com: Kamal, how does it feel to see Canada top of those Concacaf standings at such an advanced stage of qualifying? Kamal Miller: It’s incredible. In all my life, I’ve never seen Canada in a position like this. Not even close. It’s a very special time and everyone on the team is so thankful to be part of a generation that’s making history. The buzz among the fans is bigger than ever and now we just want to take that as far as possible.
Given you’re a team that doesn’t have that record of being up there at the top, how much of your success has been down to changing the mindset of what Canada is as a team and thinking of yourselves as the equals of USA, Mexico and the rest? We’ve always had confidence in our own abilities but the most important thing has been backing that up and playing like a ‘big team’. The 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup was my first tournament with Canada and I could tell from then that aiming high, getting to where we are now, was what it was all about. We could all see as players that we were improving from camp to camp, getting more confident. All we needed was the results on paper to cement that progress and get the country believing that, yeah, we’re a legit team and legit contenders to qualify. Now the results are there, and the numbers don’t lie.
With all the successes you had last year and the women’s team winning the Olympics, is there a real feeling of forward momentum with Canadian football at the moment? Definitely. To be honest, the women have always been setting the standard in this country – and setting it pretty high. As long as I’ve been with the team, we’ve just been trying to chase them, reach their level and achieve a bit of what they’ve managed to achieve. I think on both sides, men and women, we take so much pride in knowing that we’re the generation to really do something special and gain the respect we want and deserve. It’s great too because everything that happened last year shows future generations that it really is possible.
Christine Sinclair made a point after winning the Olympics of stressing John Herdman’s role in starting Canada on the road towards that achievement by changing the team’s mentality. Have you seen him have a similar impact since he switched to the men’s team? He’s definitely been a huge factor in what we’ve done. This is a deepest pool of players Canada has ever had but you need to get your selections right as a coach, and he has done that. He’s also 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. We always feel going out that, even if we’re the underdogs, we can get a result and that we have a plan to do that.
He has also spoken very highly of you and clearly believed in you from a very early stage in your career. How important has that been, knowing you have your coach’s faith? It’s been huge. I think the importance of that player-coach relationship is sometimes underrated in football and, for me, it’s vital to have that belief in what your boss is telling you and know too that you have his full confidence to carry out those instructions.
Although it’s clearly not as important as your results in World Cup qualifying, did the players notice – and take some pride from – being the most-improved team in the FIFA World Ranking last year? Most definitely. We don’t get too caught up in the metrics of it all but seeing that title, of the most-improved team across the world, was something we got a real kick out of. It’s massive. And it didn’t say most-improved players – it said most improved team, and that’s something we pride ourselves on. We’re a team, a family, and it’s great to see that the hard work we’re doing together is getting its rewards.
Alphonso Davies is the name most people will identify in your team, but it seems he very much fits into that family ethos you speak of and doesn’t expect to be on any kind of pedestal… That’s right, and that comes from Alphonso himself. He’s a superstar, one of the biggest names in football, and in his position he could start on any team in the world. It gives me so much pride that he’s Canadian, to see him doing his thing. But when he’s with the national team he’s just one of us, and I think he really enjoys that. He feels comfortable, like he’s with his brothers, and we all enjoy each other’s company so much. Phonzie doesn’t care about headlines. He just wants the best for everyone on the team – and wants us to win.
You now have three huge games coming up, with a home match against the US sandwiched in between trips to Honduras and El Salvador. How do you approach the very different challenges these matches pose? Like you say, all three games are going to be so different and every one is going to require us to bring something else out of ourselves. It’s obvious to say but it really is a case of taking those challenges one at a time and not getting too ahead of ourselves. It’s great to be in first place but we know that can all change so quickly, so we’ll stay humble and stay hungry.
Finally, you’ve spoken about how excitement in Canada has been growing thanks to your exploits so far in qualifying. If you were to qualify, what do you do you think that would do to football in the country? I really think it would unite the country and open so many doors for any Canadian who wants to play this game. It will get imaginations going, get kids dreaming even bigger, and it would definitely get soccer – at all levels – a lot more respect throughout the country. Qualifying for a World Cup is what we need to take things to the next level, and we want it really bad.