Montreal, Canada – “Why go to the national team? You’re not going to go to the World Cup.”
That is what former Canadian striker Alex Bunbury says he was asked by his managers at West Ham United, Harry Redknapp and Billy Bonds, ahead of the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Bunbury, who immigrated to Canada from Guyana as a child, told Al Jazeera that he responded simply, “This is a country that gave myself, my siblings and my parents so many opportunities, I cannot turn my back.”
At that point, the Canadian men’s national football team had only qualified for one FIFA World Cup in its existence, with a victory over Honduras on September 14, 1985 that sent it to the tournament in Mexico the next year.
But after a 36-year purgatory, Canada will be going back later this year – and Bunbury says it is an emotional time not just for himself, but for the entire country.
“It’s a sight for sore eyes,” said Bunbury, who was an alternate for Canada’s 1986 World Cup team but did not participate, of the team’s 4-0 win over Jamaica on Sunday that clinched their spot in the men’s World Cup in Qatar in November.
“They got so emotional, and I got emotional. I didn’t think I would because I’d been there and done it. But just to see these players, how they conduct themselves on and off the field, as well, is a testament to their character and Canada deserves to have this.”
With a fearless young squad, rich with talent, that plays both in North America and in some of the biggest European leagues, the perception of Canada as a footballing nation is changing, say people close to the game.
“There’s absolutely, 100 percent, been a shift,” said former Canada and Borussia Monchengladbach striker Rob Friend. “Are we there yet? No, I would never say that. There’s still a lot of question marks.
“I’d call us an undeveloped football nation, but this is a monster step in the right direction.”
Former Canadian women’s football team midfield Amy Walsh said most children growing up in Canada are not surrounded by football. Instead, hockey continues to take up a huge share of the country’s sporting culture.
“Growing up, you couldn’t see yourself on the world stage because it just wasn’t something that was in front of you as an option. It was the [National Hockey League],” Walsh told Al Jazeera.
For Walsh, who represented Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, two people from the women’s game played an integral role in lifting football in the country: Striker Christine Sinclair, Canada’s all-time, leading international goal scorer with 188; and John Herdman, who was the women’s team manager until he joined the men in 2018.
Canada supporters fly flags before kickoff against Jamaica in the FIFA World Cup qualifying match at BMO Field in Toronto [Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports]
Herdman led Canada’s women’s team to consecutive Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016, after finishing last at the 2011 women’s World Cup. “Herdman comes in, revamps the programme top to bottom and instils belief in basically the same group [from 2011],” Walsh said. “There was very little changeover in that roster and they won that bronze medal.”
The women’s team took home their first Olympic gold at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“I think the women’s game has definitely paved the way for their [the men’s] success but John Herdman at the helm has definitely been the catalyst for that to happen,” Walsh said, referring to the men’s World Cup berth.
Canada also has a diverse squad that its supporters say reflects the country itself – and helps grow enthusiasm for the game.
Star Alphonso Davies was born to Liberian parents in a Ghanaian refugee camp and immigrated to Canada, while Jonathan Da, a son of Haitian immigrants, moved to the capital, Ottawa, at the age of two from the United States.
For former Canada midfielder Patrice Bernier, “that’s what Canada is all about.”
“People are paying attention and saying: ‘Wow, this is Canada. They are really representing us as we truly are,’” Bernier said.
Bunbury also said the team’s chemistry will make Canada “a team to be reckoned with in the World Cup”.
“I wouldn’t want to play them at all. I would not want to play against that athleticism, the chemistry that they have, how hard they fight for each other. They’re not fearful of anyone, they respect their opponents. I can tell they respect them, but they don’t fear them.”
Canada’s Alphonso Davies in action against Mexico in October last year [Henry Romero/Reuters]
Building the game
Meanwhile, Canada’s World Cup qualification is expected to impact the development of the sport in the country.
According to the Canadian Soccer Association, football is the largest participatory sport in the country with about 1 million registered members. After decades without a domestic league, the Canadian Premier League (CPL) played its first season in 2019.
Friend, who returned home post-retirement to become the co-owner and CEO of the CPL’s Pacific FC, said getting to the World Cup is “the biggest window of opportunity we have in this country”.
Friend said he hoped the Canadian Soccer Association, the CPL and the United States’ Major League Soccer — which has three teams in Canada — will work together to “grow and reinvest in the game”.
“It’s important that we have a framework in place, that we take advantage of this opportunity, and that the investment goes in the right places,” Friend said. “It’s everywhere from grassroots, up to the semi-pro level, to the professional level, up to the national team. We’re all connected.
“I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say we wasted this five, six years of opportunity. There’s no better time, the world and this country is watching.”