Atiba Hutchinson, the 39-year-old captain of the Canadian men’s team, stretched out on the turf as they prepared to play in their first World Cup match in 36 years while gazing up at the stadium lights.
Hutchinson’s apparent nervousness would have been reasonable given how long he had to wait for this evening. Or perhaps it was because the second-ranked team in the world, Belgium, was his reward for his decades of perseverance.
He didn’t appear at all tense. He appeared at ease. He seemed content. He smiled and half-closed his eyes, giving off the impression that he had just seen the ocean after traveling a great distance to get there.
Even in a case like Hutchinson at the World Cup — he has never done exactly this, at these heights — he has done something close to it dozens of times, and a reasonable facsimile hundreds of times, and a reduced version thousands of times.
His much younger teammates, particularly the ones tasked with scoring goals, have not. They were sometimes terrific, optimistic, confident on a hugely fun night. They were also less than clinical, and the Canadians lost 1-0.
In the eighth minute, Tajon Buchanan took a shot that Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco blocked with his hand. Canada was awarded a penalty. Alphonso Davies lined up to take it.
Davies, as well as having a terrific chance to give his side an early lead, was also set to score the first goal for Canada in men’s World Cup history. During Canada’s only other appearance at the tournament in 1986, the men were shut out in three consecutive defeats.
The referee took seemingly forever to organize things. Davies waited, staring at the grass. Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, a giant in every sense, stared instead at him.
Last week in Dubai, the Canadians played one last tune-up, a friendly against the Japanese. They were awarded a penalty in the dying seconds of added time for a chance to win the game.
Jonathan David, who is on a torrid goal-scoring pace with Ligue 1 club Lille, seemed poised to take it. Then Lucas Cavallini, El Tanque to his teammates, took the ball from him.
Head coach John Herdman looked at his bench. “If he tries a Panenka, I’m gonna kill him,” he said.
Cavallini did try a Panenka — a soft, looping shot down the middle of the net, designed to put the ball where the diving goalkeeper used to be but no longer is. He barely scuffed the ball over the line.
After, Herdman shook his head, laughing ruefully. “Just put it in the corner,” he said later. “Hit it as hard as you can, as low as you can into the corner. I don’t know why we need to do that stuff.”
Herdman was then asked if he had a designated penalty taker.
“I thought it was Jonny,” he said, referring to David. Next, he was asked an especially prescient question. If Canada was awarded a penalty against Belgium, would Herdman decide who took it?
“No,” he said. “I’ll let the lads sort that one out. At the end of the day, they play the game. I try to micromanage as much as I can, but you gotta know their feel.”
Davies had taken two penalties in his career, both for Canada. He had made them both. David is 9-for-12 lifetime from the spot.
That’s not perfect, but that is indisputably more. And on a night like this — “You know the whole world is watching,” Hutchinson said — more is good.
The veteran Courtois, arguably the best goalkeeper on Earth, had anticipated both Davies and David might take a penalty and had watched video of their past efforts in preparation. Davies taking the shot had made his job easier.
For both of his penalties — in low-stakes situations against the Cayman Islands and Curaçao — Davies had opened his body and shot to his left, the goalkeeper’s right.
“So that’s why I decided to go there,” Courtois said after.
Davies’s shot was a little light, and not close enough to the post — not exactly the hard hit to the corner that Herdman had prescribed in Dubai. It was also to his left, Courtois’s right. Courtois was there to meet it.
The Canadians responded well to the setback — Davies among them. They were often the better team. But like the missed penalty, opportunity after opportunity went wanting. A sliding Buchanan missed from six yards out. Stephen Eustáquio nutmegged the great Kevin De Bruyne and sent a gorgeous ball into the box. David couldn’t get his head behind it.
In the end, Canada had 22 shots; only three found the target. The Belgians, who commended their opponents and admonished themselves after the game, had only nine attempts.
Critically, however, three of those also found the target, and one found the back of the net. Toward the end of the first half, Michy Batshuayi collected an inch-perfect long ball from Toby Alderweireld and fired it home.
Belgium has participated in 48 World Cup games overall prior to the encounter. The three Canadians were there.
It is impossible to close a 45-game margin in one night or within the next 100 years.
However, Canada now has four, and Hutchinson understood its significance better than anyone.
He said, “Take that as a lesson.” “Utilize the advantages. And get ready for the following one.”
On Sunday against Croatia, Canada’s men will play in their fifth World Cup game overall. Between now and then, let’s hope they get older and learn to mistake the net for the ocean.