In soccer, experience tells. Japan is about to play in its seventh consecutive Men’s World Cup. Canada is about to play its first in 36 years. Good teams, good players, have a nose for insecurity, for uncertainty, for weakness.
Japan needed eight minutes to find it in Canada.
The Canadians needed the rest of the game to show that they have strengths, too.
Thursday’s 2-1 win for Canada in Dubai — one last tune-up for both teams before they embark on their World Cup campaigns in Qatar — didn’t exactly take place in a cauldron. There were maybe 1,000 fans in Al Maktoum Stadium. The evening air was warm and still rather than electric.
Even absent nerves or pressure, the countless tiny gulfs that exist between Canada’s best players and the best in the world began to open.
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Milan Borjan, the goalkeeper who guided Canada through its epic qualifying run with his stellar saves and charismatic leadership, has a fundamental flaw. He is not good with his feet. He’s 35 years old, and there is no fixing that hard fact. He is who he is.
Before the Canadians really had chance to find their rhythm, he shanked the clearance of a fairly easy ball, failing to kick it to half. Head coach John Herdman, pacing the touchline like a man waiting for an important phone call to be returned, stopped his perpetual motion to tell Borjan to settle down.
The Japanese, spotted so much of the pitch, had already mounted their precision counter by then. They sliced down the middle of the field and Yuki Soma neatly handled a long through ball and slotted it home.
That’s how the game works at this level. It is designed to expose you for everything that you are.
Including the size of your heart. The Canadians showed some of their admirable mettle and regrouped, responding to the early blow in the 21st minute. Steven Vitória directed home a corner kick that went uncharacteristically uncleared by the Japanese.
Everyone makes mistakes.
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And in the dying seconds of the second half, deep into added time, the Japanese made one more. Richie Laryea was brought down in the box, and the Canadians were awarded a penalty.
Lucas Cavallini lined up to take it. He got lucky that the Japanese goalkeeper fell just enough for his ill-advised Panenka, the ball spinning off his glove and dropping into net.
It was an improbable, happy end to a sloppy match — and the result shouldn’t mask the faults that were exposed.
GOAL! Steven Vitória equalizes from the corner! 🍁
In the 35th minute, Borjan again gave a gift to the Japanese, this time when he played a short ball and got a little crossed up with Kamal Miller. In that instance, Miller blocked the dangerous shot that resulted, and the giveaway went unpunished.
Back in Qatar, notes were still being taken: Force the ball back to Borjan, and then take it from him.
That was already the script when Canada played a friendly against Uruguay in September. He was pressed relentlessly.
That time, Canada went down to defeat, 2-0. After, an optimistic narrative was constructed by many observers, most especially Herdman. He claimed the game was within his team’s reach. If only the Canadians had finished their opportunities, they had a chance to win.
They didn’t. That’s the difference between good and great, between upstart and veteran.
But sometimes in life, luck makes up the gap.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if the Canadians fall a little short against the more vaunted sides that await. Belgium and Croatia especially — those teams are supposed to win against Canada. They are better in every respect. They will almost certainly finish what Japan could not.
That doesn’t mean Canada’s inspired and inspiring group of men shouldn’t enjoy every moment in the sun they have earned, Thursday night’s fortunate win included.
The only tragedy will be if Canada fails to take the one opportunity it knows it will be given over the coming days and weeks: to stand alongside the greatest players on Earth, to be honest about the ways in which they are special, and to resolve that the next time around, we will rely less on good fortune, and more on ourselves.