Herdman: Canada should track down a X figure Qatar

  • John Herdman led Canada to their first FIFA World Cup™ in 36 years
  • An ultra-ambitious approach in qualifying saw them top the Concacaf standings
  • He tells FIFA+ how he will handle the “gift and curse” of being World Cup underdogs

When John Herdman switched from coaching Canada’s women to take charge of the country’s men, it was widely viewed as a backwards step.

The Englishman looked at the time to be trading the elite for also-rans; a team he had led to two Olympic medals, and which was bound for gold, for a side languishing 94th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

Even the tag of also-rans bestowed a little too much credit. After all, Canada’s men hadn’t just come up short in recent FIFA World Cup™ qualifying races – they’d never even made it to the starting blocks. It was well over 20 years since the team had progressed to the Hexagonal, Concacaf’s final stage of qualifying, and no-one in the US, Mexico or elsewhere came into the Qatar 2022 preliminaries quaking in their boots about the threat from the region’s north.

How was it possible, therefore, that the Canucks not only qualified, but did so as Concacaf’s leading team – and with a game to spare? Veteran goalkeeper Milan Borjan needed no time to answer that question. “I can just say two words: John Herdman. That’s it,” he said.

Herdman is, as Borjan mirrored, Canada’s marvel man. He has likewise did right by be a card shark striking and shrewd enough to recognize, and stake his standing on, an open door that legitimized the weighty gamble. That portentous, perilous looking move from training Christine Sinclair and Co had, he made sense of, been founded on a conviction that driving the men to a World Cup “could change the game in this country”. Justification has been reasonably sweet.

However, with that first, stupendous job well done, Herdman ends up confronted with a situation. His procedure hitherto has been founded on desire, and a ton of it, with Canada’s dynamite, table-fixing outcome in qualifying something like he had requested before a ball was kicked. Might he venture to adopt similar strategy at the country’s first World Cup in quite a while, with Croatia and Belgium – both decoration victors at the last release – among the giants ready to pounce?

John, what are your critical needs among now and the World Cup?
John Herdman: One of the inside needs has been exploring our rivals and taking a gander at ways we can ideally close the subjective hole that, as longshots, we’ll have to manage. There’s likewise a ton of work going into taking a gander at the mentality of the gathering and how we change the way of life to deliver one more degree of execution once again from them and set up a strategic outline that allows us an opportunity to contend truly.

For the players, there’s work to place in for them to get along nicely at this World Cup, and I’m now seeing them put that in. They realize there is a hole to close however that there’s likewise a potential chance to make something uniquely great, an individual best. As staff, we simply need to establish a climate that permits those players to arrive at those new levels – in light of the fact that that is the thing it will take.

In closing that gap, does it help that you’ve already shown that it can be done in the way you made up the huge amount of ground that had existed between yourselves and the likes of USA and Mexico in Concacaf?

That is important. In June, we spent some time with the team looking at what got us here – to the top of Concacaf and back to the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. We were able to identify a lot of key elements, whether that was the brotherhood, the team spirit the players worked on and which kept the team on track, or the maverick ability of our forwards and our fullbacks, or our transitional quality. In Concacaf, we were the best in certain areas and one of those was scoring goals when the opposition was disorganised.

We were looking at all those elements but what we also saw is that what got us here won’t get us there, and by there I mean success on the global stage. Success in Concacaf doesn’t translate to success at the World Cup – this will be a completely different jungle for these players. We’ll be a genuine underdog in every single game and while that mentality of the underdog is an absolute gift, it’s a curse at the same time. We’ve had to explore that. We’ve had to look closely at what will be different and what we’ll have to change to inspire a nation and what it will take for these players to get out and really enjoy this World Cup – and enjoy it by competing.

How much of your work right now is on that psychological side of things; making sure you get that underdog mentality right?

Well, for me, mindset will always undermine structure and always undermine skillset, so it has to be the most important part of this. We can have a great tactical blueprint, do months and months of scouting on these top teams, but if the mindset is not right it will undermine all of that. That’s why we’ve put a huge focus in that area and it’s why we do need to be careful about that underdog mentality because underpinning that is the implication you’re not good enough.

We’ve tried to flip that and looked to unpack the David-v-Goliath concept, because there’s no doubt we’re going to face two of the giants of world football. We can’t play those games conventionally, match up the way normal teams might – we’ve got to look to be different and find that X factor. To do that, we wanted to look at all the reasons why David was favoured to win that battle, and then looking at how we can be favourites in these matches – to think differently.

Some of the players might answer that David-v-Goliath question we put to them with a bit of a smile. But they are clear that we’ve already been on a unique journey and there are some areas that we believe put us in a really good position to be successful and push deep into this tournament.

In the preliminaries, you made it clear that it wasn’t about scraping through in the last qualifying place, even though that would have been a fantastic achievement – you wanted to top the group. Given what you’ve said here, how easy – or tough – has it been for you to set expectations and ambitions for the World Cup itself?

That was what the meetings in June were all about for us, and it could never be a case of me just pulling some goals and objectives out of a hat. Those goals must be founded in real confidence that they can be realised. Our targets for Concacaf were always pioneering, over-achieving, and this group embraced that mindset of using every camp we have together to break new ground and make history.

What they have now is a knowledge that if you believe something is possible and commit your mind to it, it really is possible. Even at the start of this journey – my very first meeting with the players back in 2018 – I told them, ‘I’m not here to prepare you to qualify, or to win this match we have coming up. I’m here to get you ready over four years to be the first Canada team to score, to get a result and progress out of a World Cup group stage.’ Back in 2018, the players were scratching their heads, thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ But now they believe.

During qualifying, you mentioned how meaningful it was to play Mexico at the Azteca due to having “fallen in love with football” watching Maradona play there in 1986. Are there any other standout World Cup memories for you from down the years?

It’s just such a special time in people’s lives. There’s all the excitement and anticipation in the build-up with the World Cup fixture charts in the newspapers, the Panini cards, and by the time the tournament comes around – with the theme song and TV production – you don’t really care who’s playing in that first game. For me, the World Cup was everything. Those days – it was summer in the UK, so you’d be down the field pretending to be [Michel] Platini, Glenn Hoddle or Gary Lineker with his wristband on – were just the best of your life.

I remember being up at all hours with my dad to watch England play – those are special memories. Even now, I’m conscious that as I go so deep into the work, and the detail of preparing everything for the matches, I don’t want to lose that feeling I had as a kid. I keep wanting to provoke that with my players too, telling them to bring that childish spirit to this World Cup environment. I think it will stand us in good stead.

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