Canada’s return to the World Cup looked smashing in every way except one

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Soccer Football – FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 – Group F – Belgium v Canada – Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar – November 23, 2022 Canada’s Alphonso Davies has his penalty saved by Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois

RAYYAN, Qatar – Canada reappeared at the World Cup after 36 years on Wednesday and brought freshness, verve, speed, quickness, spark, sparkle, gumption, derring-do, cosmopolitanism, the really cool national anthem sung throatily by many players and staff, penetrations, crosses, through balls and competence but not any goals.

It lost, 1-0, to Belgium because soccer emulates life and life isn’t fair.

It made Belgium and its golden generation look aging for the possible reason that Belgium and its golden generation are aging. The presence of a fresh foe full of unapologetic strivers made Belgium look as if dwelling in the fumes of its quarterfinal and semifinal showings in the past two World Cups. At moments it almost seemed to creak audibly. It might go ahead and wonder if it has another generation.

It opened Group F with a win, though, and spring atop the group that also includes Croatia and Morocco, who drew 0-0, because it hasn’t let go of its know-how. It benefited from Canada’s festival of bold bids decorated with errant shots, and then it caught the only play it would end up needing.

That came on 43 minutes, when Toby Alderweireld, the 33-year-old in his 125th cap, sent a long and pretty thing up the pitch maybe 60 yards and smack into a place it could prove useful. There, Michy Batshuayi, the 29-year-old often dubbed “Batsman,” didn’t corral it so much as understand it, getting to the box and taking it quickly at the outset of its second hop with defenders Richie Laryea and Kamal Miller breathing upon him, then drilling it to the back right corner of the goal.

Unfairness filled the air.

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Nov 23, 2022; Al Rayyan, Qatar; Canada head coach John Herdman talks to his team after losing 1-0 to Belgium in a group stage match during the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

Canada, with its bright-bright 21-year-old star Alphonso Davies looking healed from hamstring injury and moving about electrically, must have looked far different than what a mere 14,200 spectators saw on June 9, 1986, in Irapuato, Mexico. That day, in their only prior World Cup appearance, the Canadians finished their stay with a 2-0 loss to, yeah, the Soviet Union, and they left that World Cup both winless and goalless.

They’re still seeking that first-ever goal, and you’d have to think they’ll get it here, and they almost got it in the single-digit minutes. That’s when Tajon Buchanan whipped a shot from a crowd inside the box, and the legendary 30-year-old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois grabbed it. VAR review, however, showed that before Courtois grabbed it, teammate Yannick Carrasco handed it, and suddenly Canada had a penalty on about 10 minutes, even as it took about halfway to forever for the referee to whistle it underway.

Davies took it, and he slid it left just as Courtois lunged right, repelling it back into the box, where Davies kind of whacked at it again but skied an awkward try. With that, Courtois bounded up all chesty like some pharaoh of the goalmouth, and his teammates surrounded him with admiration and gratitude.

Canada kept at it, though, on their way to a 19-6 advantage in shots. Shots went wide right. Shots went wide left. Shots went over the goal more than any of the outcomes. Courtois dove right and stopped Cyle Larin’s header from Alistair Johnston’s fine cross on 79 minutes. All of that and more like it carried on all through the first half and through most of the second, until the whole thing became an entertaining reminder that life isn’t fair.