‘We don’t fear anybody’: Canada ready for Croatia challenge at World Cup

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DOHA, Qatar – From mind games regarding player selection to cursing, Canada coach John Herdman has dominated World Cup headlines in the first week of the tournament.

His latest comments certainly made the front pages in Croatia, two days before Canada faces the 2018 finalists in a pivotal Group F match.

“I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff– Croatia,” Herdman said in the official on-pitch postgame interview on Wednesday after the 1-0 loss to Belgium.

The newspaper, 24 Sata, later wrote that Herdman “crossed the line of good taste.”

If this match wasn’t feisty enough, it’s been cranked up to 100.

Some may question the tactic from Herdman to reveal what he told the players after the Belgium loss. But this isn’t the first time the English coach has participated at a major tournament. He’s well aware of his actions.

When asked to explain himself, with throngs of Croatian media present at training on Thursday, Herdman didn’t exactly back down.

“I mean no disrespect to the Croatian team and Croatian people, but at the end of the day it’s a mindset that Canada’s going to have if we’re going to have three points against one of the top teams in the world,” he said. “And it’s the mindset that we took to Belgium. We have to. It’s part of ‘New Canada.’”

The “New Canada” term is one Herdman throws around regularly. Instead of the pessimistic attitude surrounding the men’s program, the 46-year-old wants to replace it with a brash mindset.

“We’re not afraid of anybody,” said Tajon Buchanan. “We’ve shown that we can compete now. We competed with Belgium and obviously we came away with zero points. But sometimes that happens.”

Herdman is a master motivator, and he knows this group of players better than anyone. Shifting the attention away from the Alphonso Davies penalty or the failure to convert any of the team’s 22 shots versus Belgium is genius. Nobody’s fixated on it anymore. Galvanizing the players with those words is just a bonus.

But it’s all in good fun for the Canadians.

“We don’t mind if it gets built up a little bit in the media,” said defender Alistair Johnston. “It’s a little bit of fun, it gets a little more exciting around the matchup, not just in Canada and Croatia, but from other countries as well. 

“You have a bit of extra interest for the match, so I think that’s kind of exciting for us.”

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The mood is upbeat two days after a defeat, with all focus on a must-not-lose matchup for Canada. A defeat would end its hopes of advancing to the round of 16. A draw or win would set up a key Group F finale for Les Rouges against Morocco.

“We just have to keep that same mentality [from Belgium] going into the next game and finish our chances,” Buchanan said. 

“I have no doubt that we can do that.”

If there’s any consolation for Canada from the loss, it’s that it proved it can handle the World Cup stage and thrive on its own terms.

It also alleviates the pressure on the players after what must’ve been an emotional evening. Snapping a 36-year World Cup for the men’s national team, adapting to the atmosphere and soaking in the boisterous support from fans inside the stadium must’ve been overwhelming.

To have that out of the way and being incentivized to ensure that the same outcome doesn’t transpire – or else Canada’s World Cup will be over on Dec. 1 – should have a positive knock-on effect.

“We know that we can play at this level,” said Johnston. “I think having that now in our back pocket after playing against Belgium in that opening games has only helped the group. The morale is unbelievably high and I’ve never seen that after a loss before.”

NOTES: All 26 players trained as normal on Friday ahead of the Croatia match and there are no injury concerns. … Johnston addressed recent reports that he’s set to join Scottish giants Celtic, saying he’s “super excited” to be linked but the CF Montreal defender is focusing on the World Cup for now before dealing with a potential transfer in January.

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