Can Canada do better at the World Cup?

CBC Sports' daily newsletter reviews Canada's humbling World Cup experience and proposes an idea for how the team can gain an edge.
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. .

The Canadian men's soccer team's brief return to the World Cup after a 36-year wait ended today with a 2-1 loss to Morocco in its semi-meaningless finale. Canada had achieved one of its objectives for the tournament when Alphonso Davies scored Canada's first-ever men's World Cup goal 68 seconds into what turned out to be a fatal loss to Croatia on Sunday. Today, the eliminated Canadians had their sights set on salvaging the first World Cup "result" (soccerspeak for a win or a draw) for the men's national team. Instead, Canada is now 0-6 in men's World Cup matches and it finishes this World Cup with a minus-5 goal differential — same as the winless and scoreless 1986 team.

Today's game went south quickly when shaky goalkeeper Milan Borjan got pressured into a horrendous giveaway that Morocco star Hakim Ziyech converted in the fourth minute. Youssef En-Nesyri made it 2-0 less than 20 minutes later by outracing two Canadian defenders to a long ball that he tucked past Borjan. Canada got on the board just before halftime, though the country's second-ever men's World Cup goal officially belongs to Morocco's Nayef Aguerd, who notched an own goal while attempting to redirect a delivery by Canada's Sam Adekugbe. The Canadians played much better in the second half — and 39-year-old captain Atiba Hutchinson nearly brought his team all the way back when his header bounced off the bottom of the cross bar and then the goal line — but couldn't find the equalizer. "Two inches from getting our first result," coach John Herdman said later. "That's all it was."

Morocco's victory made the North African side, ranked 22nd in the world, the surprising winner of Group F. No. 12 Croatia, a World Cup finalist four years ago, also advanced after a scoreless draw with overrated Belgium. The No. 2-ranked team is out of the tournament after losing to Morocco and beating Canada in a match where it was decidedly outplayed.

An even more unlikely scenario played out in Group E, where 24th-ranked Japan defeated European powers Germany and, today, Spain to win the stacked division. The Japanese will face Croatia in the round of 16, while Spain gets Morocco after placing second. Germany's win today over Costa Rica wasn't enough to prevent the four-time World Cup champs from being eliminated in the group round for the second straight time.

Former Canada's Men's 1986 World Cup player, Bob Lenarduzzi, breaks down Canada's performance after losing its third and final World Cup match against Morocco.

As for Canada, in retrospect, our hopes may have been too high. Heading into the tournament, oddsmakers pegged this team's chances of advancing at just 1 in 4. That cruel 1-0 loss to Belgium suggested the young Canadian squad was ready to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world on the biggest stage. Sunday's 4-1 schooling by Croatia showed otherwise. Today's narrow defeat to a strong Moroccan team falls somewhere in the middle, though it reinforced the point that there's much work to do before Canada co-hosts the World Cup in 2026.

Maybe we can start with penalty kicks? The moment that many Canadians will spend the next four years agonizing over is Davies' ill-fated PK early in the opener vs. Belgium. A goal there could have sent Canada to a positive result — maybe even a win — that would have at least made today's group-stage finale meaningful. But Davies' attempt was weak and easily stopped, and a golden opportunity missed.

Many Canadian fans questioned why Davies, who plays mostly on the wing and had attempted only two penalties in his career, would take that kick instead of a more accomplished scorer like forward Jonathan David, who's near the top of the French league in goals. Some wondered what Herdman was thinking. But it wasn't the coach's call. The Canadians simply followed the soccer convention of letting the players decide in the moment who would take the kick. Davies stepped up, which you love to see from your best player in a pressure-packed moment. But, for all his talents, he probably wasn't the right man for this particular job. A limp corner kick by Davies late in today's match seemed to bolster that point.

So, here's a modest proposal. If we agree that Canada, at this relatively early stage of its development as a legitimate soccer country, must explore every possible edge it can find in order to compete with the big boys, then how about drawing some best practices from our unique surroundings? Unlike in most of the other World Cup countries, soccer is not king here in North America. In our favourite sports — hockey in Canada and American football in the U.S. — the coach makes the crucial calls, whether that's selecting which players participate in a game-deciding shootout or electing whether to go for it on fourth down. So how about borrowing from them and putting the tough decision of who takes a penalty kick into Herdman's hands? Unconventional? Sure. But look where convention got us.

Regardless, Canada should put in a better showing in 2026 due simply to the natural maturation process of athletes. The young core of Davies (currently 22), David (also 22) and key midfielder Stephen Eustaquio (25) will be in their primes, and promising attacker Tajon Buchanan (23) will be more seasoned too. That's a strong foundation, and of course homefield advantage will help too. For more on what Canada might learn from this humbling but valuable World Cup experience, .

It's the final day of group play, and two teams in action — tournament favourite Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal — have already clinched spots in the round of 16. At 10 a.m. ET, Portugal needs only a draw vs. winless South Korea to secure first place in Group H while disappointing Uruguay must defeat second-place Ghana to have any hope of advancing. At 2 p.m. ET, Brazil can claim Group G with a draw vs. Cameroon while workmanlike Switzerland can move on with a draw vs. Serbia.

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