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in Canada, soccer develops in the wake of qualification for the World Cup

For the first time in thirty-six years, Canada qualified for a World Cup, beating Jamaica (4-0), Sunday March 27. The event could go unnoticed, in a country where soccer remains a secondary sport, given the popularity of ice hockey. But the performance of the Canucks, leaders of the Concacaf group with only one defeat in thirteen outings, is such that the Canadian population is caught up in the game. “The tickets were sold out in 38 minutes for the match against Jamaica!”exults Patrice Bernier, selected 56 times in the Canadian national team between 2003 and 2017. The meeting was watched by a million viewers.

“Before, people came to the stadium with ice hockey t-shirts. Now we are starting to see soccer shirts”, testifies Rodolphe Wilhelm, present in the stands during the decisive match on Sunday. Expatriated for a decade, this Alsatian coaches a U16 team from a Toronto club. He has watched Canadian football evolve in recent seasons, which has gone from 117th to 33rd in the Fifa rankings in five years.

This success, Canada owes in large part to John Herdman, its coach. Previously at the head of the women’s selection, with which he won two gold medals at the London and Rio Olympics, the Englishman immediately aimed to qualify for Qatar on his arrival in 2018. Whatever if, before his taking office, the selection was in 94th place in the world.

“In the past, Canada suffered from an inferiority complex compared to its neighbours. There, they have progressed on the mental aspect and do not want to leave any centimeter to the Costa Ricans and Mexicans.”

Patrice Bernier, former Canadian international

at franceinfo: sport

The revival has, it is true, been facilitated by the advent of an exceptional generation, embodied by Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Lille). “But there are otherscontinues Bernier. Eustaquio plays at Porto, Richie Laryea at Nottingham, Borjan and Hutchinson have experience in the Champions League…” The former midfielder also reminds us that Canada has won four out of five games since the Bavarian’s injury.

In addition to being good footballers, these are, for many, from diversity. “They are like the country, a melting pot of several nationalities”, decrypts Rodolphe Wilhelm, a great follower of Canadian football. These African, European or Indian communities help popularize football. Stephen Eustaquio is of Portuguese origin, Jonathan David is Haitian and Alphonso Davies was born in Ghana.

In the country with the maple leaf, the notoriety of the left side does not reach that of Drake, an emblematic rapper from Toronto. But he gradually became a figure of Canadian youth. “Since the good results, Drake has helped for the notoriety of footballsays Rodolphe Wilhelm. Before, he was mostly talking about the Raptors [franchise de NBA basée à Toronto]and there he follows the soccer team and posts pictures with Davies.”

Trained at the Vancouver Whitecaps, Davies exemplifies the development of soccer beyond selection. He became known to the local public in MLS before joining Germany. In all, three Canadian franchises play in the North American championship. “These clubs have academies and no longer force Canadians to emigrate very young. They assert themselves, become pros and then cross the Atlantic”completes Patrice Bernier, who ended his career with the Montreal Impact, in MLS.

At the same time, a professional championship was born in 2019. The Canadian Premier League “gives a bigger pool of players to compete in U17 or U20“, for Patrice Bernier. “It’s similar to Ligue 2 level”, engages Guillaume Pianelli, just recruited by the Patriots, reigning champions. The 23-year-old defender, who trained for two years with SC Bastia in Ligue 1, continues: “The individual level is very good, but there are tactical gaps.”

Guillaume Pianelli settled in Quebec in 2019, to play in a university team. To hear it, this North American model benefits the selection: “Canadian players first played for universities in the United States, before joining MLS and then the selection”continues the Corsican, who sees himself staying in Canada.

Frenchman Dominique Rocheteau and Canadian midfielder David Norman, June 1, 1986, in Mexico City.   (GEORGES GOBET / AFP)

This qualification for the World Cup should accelerate the development of soccer in the country. Patrice Bernier was six years old when the Reds only participated in a world meeting, in 1986. “This moment marked me, we were in the group of Francehe recalls. He showed me that Canada could be with Argentina or Brazil, and that soccer was not just in my neighborhood!”

Retaining an audience is all the more important as the country will co-organize the 2026 World Cup, with the United States and Mexico. A base exists: despite a notoriety still to be polished, soccer has a million licensees, more than hockey. “There is still an education to be done so that young people see the matches, but little by little, they are talking about football”notes the educator Rodolphe Wilhelm. “The World Cup will really show young people that they can be ‘soccer players’, so that we can become a country of football”, concludes Patrice Bernier.

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