Montreal Canada – “Why go to the selection? You’re not going to the World Cup.”
That’s what former Canada striker Alex Bunbury says his West Ham United managers, Harry Redknapp and Billy Bonds, asked him before the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Bunbury, who immigrated to Canada from Guyana as a child, told Al Jazeera that he simply replied: “This is a country that gave me, my brothers and my parents so many opportunities that I cannot turn my back on it.”
At the time, the Canada men’s national soccer team had only qualified for one FIFA World Cup in its existence, with a win over Honduras on September 14, 1985 sending them to the tournament in Mexico the following year.
But after a 36-year purgatory, Canada will return later this year, and Bunbury says it’s an emotional moment not just for him, but for the entire country.
“It’s a sight for sore eyes,” said Bunbury, who was an alternate for Canada’s 1986 World Cup squad but did not feature in the team’s selection. 4-0 win over Jamaica on Sunday that they secured their place at the men’s World Cup in Qatar in November.
“They got so excited and I got excited. I didn’t think she would because she had been there and done it. But just seeing these players, how they carry themselves on and off the field, is also a testament to their character and Canada deserves to have this.”
With a fearless young team rich in talent, playing in both North America and some of the biggest European leagues, the perception of Canada as a soccer nation is changing, people close to the game say.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, there has been a change,” said Rob Friend, a former Canada and Borussia Monchengladbach forward. “Are we there yet? No, I would never say that. There are still a lot of question marks.
“I would say we are an underdeveloped footballing nation, but this is a monstrous step in the right direction.”
Former midfielder for the Canadian women’s soccer team, Amy Walsh, said most kids growing up in Canada aren’t surrounded by soccer. Instead, hockey continues to occupy a large part of the country’s sports 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 him [National Hockey League]Walsh told Al Jazeera.
For Walsh, who represented Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, two people in women’s soccer played an integral role in lifting soccer in the country: forward Christine Sinclair, Canada’s all-time leading international goalscorer with 188 ; and John Herdman, who was the manager of the women’s team until he joined the men in 2018.
Herdman led the Canadian women’s team to back-to-back Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016 after finishing last at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. “Herdman comes in, revamps the program from top to bottom and instills confidence in basically the same group. [from 2011]Walsh said. “There was very little change on that list and they won the bronze medal.”
the women’s team drove home his first Olympic gold at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I think that women’s football has definitely paved the way for its [the men’s] success, but John Herdman at the helm has definitely been the catalyst for that to happen,” said Walsh, referring to the men’s World Cup berth.
Canada also has a diverse team that fans say reflects the country itself and helps build excitement for the game.
Star Alphonso Davies was born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana and emigrated to Canada, while Jonathan David, the 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 really represent us as we really are,’” Bernier said.
Bunbury also said the team’s chemistry will make Canada “a team to watch at the World Cup.”
“I wouldn’t want to play with them at all. I wouldn’t want to play against that athleticism, the chemistry they have, how hard they fight for each other. They are not afraid of anyone, they respect their opponents. I can tell they respect them, but they don’t fear them.”
building the game
Meanwhile, Canada’s qualification for the World Cup is expected to have an impact on the development of the sport in the country.
According to the Canadian Soccer Association, soccer is the largest participatory sport in the country with around 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 after retiring to become co-owner and CEO of the CPL’s Pacific FC, said reaching the World Cup is “the biggest opportunity we have in this country.”
Friend said he hoped the Canadian Soccer Association, the CPL and Major League Soccer in the United States, which has three teams in Canada, would 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 the grassroots, to the semi-pro level, to the pro level, to the national team. We are all connected.
“I don’t want to look back 10 years and say that we wasted these five or six years of opportunity. There is no better time, the world and this country are watching”.