After stunning Copa America win, Canada's men's national team may never look the same again


Arlington, Texas – One by one, the Canadian players emerged from their dressing room, some holding hands, others carrying open cans of cold beer.

Ishmael Kone, who scored Canada's winning penalty in a dramatic quarterfinal win over Venezuela, walked past dozens of stunned Venezuelan journalists with a speaker on his head playing hip-hop music.

You can't understand the strange, new feeling that lurks in it.

Less than two years ago, Canada was eliminated by Croatia in its second match of the 2022 World Cup. After losing to a more experienced team, Croatia's team entered the mixed zone in Qatar — where media waits to speak to players after a match — and played music from the speakers to remind the crowd who had emerged victorious.

And as Cone and his teammates danced with gusto, the feeling that Canada has long yearned for was evident: unbridled and deserved pride and joy.

For years, this Canadian team has been known for promise. Its players are full of talent but devoid of experience. Their greatest victories came inside CONCACAF but outside the region (and even in the knockout rounds of the tournament) Inside region) Canada faltered. They had to learn the hard way, they had Croatian pop songs on their minds.

Yet now with a big win, Canada can sing its song proudly. It is finally the team it has long wanted to be.

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Canada's players celebrate their win over Venezuela (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

At the Copa America, Canada (ranked 48th in the world) lost 2-0 to Argentina (No. 1) in the semifinals, beat Peru (No. 31) 1-0, drew 0-0 with Chile (No. 40) and eliminated Venezuela (No. 54) on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It was Canada's first penalty shootout win since beating Martinique in the 2002 Gold Cup quarterfinals a generation earlier.

The story of Canada's forays into Central America has usually been the same: they come home with their tails between their legs. A humiliating and crushing 8-1 loss to Honduras in 2012, when Canada needed just a draw to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying, was the norm, not the exception.

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But this time, Canada didn't give in to the noise. There was no learning moment left. After years of disappointment, the win over Venezuela showed they had developed the kind of emotional toughness needed to win in the tournament.

“I don't think people realize how tough (the Canada matches) are,” midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “We've been up against everything. We needed all those other experiences, those World Cup games we lost, to get here.”

What Canada has suffered over the years has been essential to their growth. For generations, a lack of interest has consumed this team, mainly due to a lack of results and the dominance of hockey as one of the country's national sports. Canada's first trip to the World Cup, 1986, is more of a mirage than a memory in the minds of Canadians. Now they have a World Cup on home soil in less than two years.

And we have to separate the men's team from the women's team here. The women's team has experienced success, including an Olympic gold medal in 2021, that has surpassed their male counterparts.

But as the women's team progressed, the men's team lagged behind. The sport's popularity grew in the 2000s. Unfortunately, Canada's male players have not been able to produce enough results to remain relevant to a larger audience.

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Canada failed to impress at the 2022 World Cup (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Things looked different under John Herdman from 2018 onwards. There was a new star in Alphonso Davies and a visionary culture that made Canadians take notice. Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was a start, but three disappointing losses in Qatar led to whispers of “same old Canada” in bars and basements across the country.

Especially in tournament football, what's the point of a process without a result?

Winning on penalties in front of a pro-Venezuela crowd in Texas in what was originally an away match may be Canada’s biggest leap forward in the wider conversation across the country.

“We’re reaching more people than just the soccer fanatics in Canada. And that’s what you want to do,” defender Alistair Johnston said. “We’re inspiring a lot of people and a lot of people are actually watching this, they’re feeling, ‘Wow, not only is this team getting to a tournament like this, but they’re competing.’ It’s something the players can be proud of.”

This win can, and should, change the conversation about this team.

Canada was missing its best player at the 2022 World Cup, Tajon Buchanan, after a foot injury in training eclipsed the team's chances. Rather than letting them down, it inspired them. When Jakob Shaffelberg pulled off Buchanan's jersey to celebrate his goal, Canada's resolve reached new heights.

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(Charlie Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images)

The talent is certainly there. More kids play the sport in Canada than hockey, it's relatively inexpensive to participate in, and the diverse population can blend their roots from soccer-loving countries with Canada's still-growing soccer fields.

Still, the Canadian Premier League only came into being in 2019. Canada’s three Major League Soccer teams and their respective academy systems are just emerging from their infancy.

Talent will still slip through the cracks.

That’s what happened with Kone, who grew up playing in parks around Montreal rather than in organized academies. Or with Schaufelberg, who had many reasons to become a Canadian international without the proper development resources in his province of Nova Scotia.

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Cone leads Canada into the semifinals (Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

However, the dramatic win over Venezuela was a reminder of what Canadian soccer pundits have been saying for years: There's more to Canadian soccer than Alphonso Davies, and there's more to this team than its stars.

Because this team feels different. Where they didn't get respect before, they should now.

“Probably not,” new Canadian head coach Jesse Marsch said when asked if Canada gets enough respect. “But it will take time. Respect comes in many different ways, but the best way to get respect is to win matches.

“When you have moments like that, the main thing is to stay focused and keep the energy around the team. We have done that. Within the group, there has been focus and concentration to keep moving forward.”

Even though Argentina is (again) in the semifinals, Canada may now feel like they belong in a game they never have before. That means the Canadian national team may never look the same again.

“I think people need to understand that (Canada's success) doesn't just happen instantly,” Osorio said. “You need to learn and you need to take steps to move forward. And we've done that. And that's why we're where we are today.”

(Top photo: CHARLIE TRIBULE/AFP via Getty Images)


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