Montreal, Canada – Rocco Placentino says it still feels surreal.
Less than two years ago, Ismael Kone was playing football for CS Saint-Laurent, a semi-professional team in Montreal, where Placentino, a former midfielder with the Montreal Impact, is the sporting director.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
And now, at just 20 years old, Kone is competing on the sport’s biggest stage in front of tens of thousands of spectators at the 2022 World Cup.
“We’re very proud of him, and it opens a door to the youth all over the world to say, ‘Maybe one day, it could be me.’ He’s quickly become a role model for a lot of youngsters, that’s for sure,” Placentino told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Qatar.
Although Canada impressed with a strong showing against Belgium in their opening match of the tournament last week and scored their first-ever World Cup goal against Croatia on Sunday, the team lost both games and will not advance to the round of 16.
Still, for Placentino and many others in the sport, the measure of success for the Canadian men’s team goes beyond wins and losses – and there is a lot to be optimistic about.
“I only see us going forward. I think that it’s just the beginning, especially now that we’re hosting the World Cup [with the United States and Mexico] in 2026, so it’s just going to get better and better,” Placentino said. “I think it’s very exciting for soccer in Canada.”
"We should be proud of what we've done" 👏
— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) November 28, 2022
Long road to World Cup
The Canadian men’s team only competed at a World Cup once before, losing three group-stage matches in Mexico in 1986, and its track record over the years has been marked by more struggles than achievements.
In contrast, the Canadian women’s team has seen tremendous international success, winning Olympic gold under the leadership of superstar forward Christine Sinclair, the world’s all-time leading scorer among women and men. Currently, the team is number seven in the FIFA world rankings ahead of next year’s’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“While the men’s team was quietly suffering, losing, yearning to pass that elusive global threshold, the women’s team was changing the game and transforming the landscape of Canadian soccer,” journalist Harley Rustad recently wrote in The Walrus news magazine.
Still, those close to the game have said the men’s qualification for this year’s World Cup is helping to shift perceptions and build a football audience in a country that has historically been dominated by hockey.
John DeBenedictis, executive director of the National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada, told Al Jazeera that the team is gaining valuable experience by competing against “top-rated opponents” in Qatar and their prospects can only improve.
“I think Canada is going to be there from here on in,” said DeBenedictis, author of the book, The Last 9 Seconds: The Secrets to Scoring Goals on the Last Touch. “This is just a great start.”
He added that television ads showcasing some of the Canadian team’s top stars – including Alphonso Davies, who scored Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal 67 seconds into their game with Croatia – also help to inspire young Canadian players.
“Alphonso’s in almost every commercial you see, so there’s something to aspire to,” he said.
Push for another first
That was echoed by Les Jones, the former chairman of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, who said the team’s showing in Qatar will encourage Canadian youth to take the sport more seriously because “they’ve seen what they can achieve”.
“We have a lot of very talented kids at the academy level, and I think it will encourage them to work harder and develop their skills,” he told Al Jazeera.
Although Canada perhaps is lacking in shooting accuracy, Jones said he believes Canada has demonstrated that they “can compete with established soccer nations”. He said playing on the World Cup stage also allows more Canadian footballers to be noticed by established clubs and gives them a better shot at playing at the highest levels abroad.
That means at the next World Cup, “the youngsters on the team will be four years older, four years wiser and they’ll be technically better,” Jones said. “If we think Canada played well now, I think you’re going to see a marked improvement in 2026.”
Before their 2022 World Cup foray ends, Canada will face Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on Thursday. It will be a final opportunity for Canada to achieve another first: The team has never won or drawn at a World Cup, losing all five matches they have ever played and thus never earning a point in the group stage.
Getting a victory or even a draw versus a confident Moroccan team will be no easy feat as the Atlas Lions are heading into the match still buzzing over a surprise 2-0 victory over Belgium, which is ranked second in the world.
But Canadian defender Alistair Johnston voiced confidence in a news conference on Monday.
“We have a really good young group, and it does make a difference, getting that first goal,” he said. “It changes something mentally.”
Johnston said that earning a point with a draw in the group stage or three points with a win would help Canada in other competitions as well, including the CONCACAF Gold Cup and future World Cups.
“To be able to get a first win or a first draw, a first result, just to be able to say you’ve done that and been a part of that, it just helps alleviate some of those mental barriers,” said the defender, who is reported to be nearing a deal to join Celtic FC in the Scottish Premiership.
It would also establish that the Canadian team belongs on the international stage, he said.
“We’ve been fighting that for a long time, [for] that feeling of belongingness,” Johnston told reporters. “So a result against Morocco I think would really go a long way in solidifying that.”