The Canadian men’s national soccer team has moved to the top of the table for the final round of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football qualifiers. The move was a result of their 2–1 win over Mexico on November 16. Canada hasn’t made it into the World Cup since 1986 and this is the closest they’ve been since 1994.

For the past 35 years, the Canadian men’s soccer team has unfortunately failed to qualify for the World Cup. While this drought does not rival the 54 years that Toronto Maple Leafs fans have been waiting to win another Stanley Cup, it has certainly been a long time. However, the teams’ recent successes have given fans hope that perhaps their days of waiting are coming to a rapid end.

In preparation for the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, eight teams qualified for the octagonal tournament, which means that the teams from North and Central America are playing each other twice over a period of seven months. 

The competition is fierce, and the top three teams will automatically advance to the World Cup. The fourth-place team also has a chance at qualifying, but it is not guaranteed, since they will first have to enter into an extra intercontinental playoff. The other four teams will be sent home at the end of the tournament.

Team Canada’s road to success

November boasted two exciting matchups for the Canadian team: they played Costa Rica on November 12 and Mexico on November 16. Canada was in an excellent position going into these games — they were one of the two teams to remain unbeaten in their first six games, and managed to score a goal against both the USA and Mexico, two formidable opponents.

After a tense first half against Costa Rica, Jonathan David scored for Canada in the 57th minute, capitalizing off a loose ball in the box. The three points from that victory were critical for Canada’s victory, but they did not have much time to celebrate, as they played Mexico — the ninth best team in the world — only four days later.

That Tuesday night, about 50,000 fans flooded into Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, which had just been blanketed by around 20 centimetres of snow. In the dying minutes of the first half, defender Alistair Johnston took a powerful shot that the Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa could only push away. Seeing the loose ball, striker Cyle Larin sprung into action and neatly tapped the ball into the back of the net. 

Throughout the second half, Canada continued to control the game, and the team’s hard work paid off when Larin scored his second goal of the night in the 52nd minute. The end of the game was certainly nerve-wracking, as Mexico scored in the 90th minute. But in the end, Canada was able to hold onto their lead and finished the November games having captured the full six points from both games.

After their victory, Canada now sits at the top of their group. This success is well deserved, and they have proven through their opening eight games that they are a team of champions. After so many years of struggle, people are now starting to recognize that this is one of the best teams in the world.

And, luckily, it seems like the team’s successes will not stop anytime soon. Many of the key players on the team are only just starting their careers as soccer players and have years left to contribute to this team. Five of the 15 athletes who played in the game against Mexico aren’t even 25 years old yet, including some of the greatest superstars that team Canada has to boast about, like 21-year-olds Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David.

Even though one cannot help but want this team to have many more major successes, their impact has already been profound. When current coach John Herdman was hired in 2018, the team was ranked 94th in the world. Now, after their most recent victory, the team is ranked 40th. As a result of their successes, new fans are constantly discovering Canadian soccer and tuning in to watch their games. And the timing for this could not have been better, since the country will come together to co-host the World Cup in 2026 alongside USA and Mexico.

But given the way that things are going, it seems like fans will not have to wait until 2026 to see Canada play in a World Cup. There is still work to be done, of course, and the team will have to maintain their momentum until their next game on January 27. But, until then, fans will be able to brag that their team is number one.

Team Canada’s impact on and off the field

The impact that the team’s success has had on the sports landscape in Canada is a story that’s often untold. Adam Seaborn, director of sales and media operations at Toronto-based media agency Kingstar Media, helped The Varsity shed some light on it.

Seaborn consistently tracks the Canadian media landscape in an attempt to help brands find value in advertising. Seaborn estimated that 1.15 million people tuned into Sportsnet’s broadcast of the Canada vs. Mexico game on average. 

To put that number into perspective, it’s about the average number of people who watch CTV news every night and the average viewership that Hockey Night in Canada receives. It is also the largest viewership figure that Seaborn could find on record for a live soccer broadcast in Canada in the last 12 years. This is monumental, since soccer has not historically been a big sport in Canada. 

Seaborn said that hockey is the most popular sport domestically by a landslide. According to him, this stayed true even when the Leafs were playing. The second-most popular sport is baseball, and the third-most popular is football, which also attracts viewers that watch a variety of teams. Fourth would be basketball — the Raptors became a national story in 2019 and, although views have declined since then, basketball still is a vaguely popular sport. 

Every athlete has had the debate with their friends about which sport is the most important. A football player will brag about the prevalence of the Super Bowl, while a soccer fan will clap back with the cliché fact that soccer is “the biggest sport worldwide.” 

While this ranking doesn’t address streaming platforms other than TV or the complications of TV rights deals, it’s fair to say that soccer doesn’t rank among the sports giants of Canada. The recent hype for the Canadian men’s team is simply because, as Seaborn says, “Canadians really seem to support Canadians.” 

Seaborn said that in sports like tennis, views have remained relatively low unless a Canadian tennis player was playing well. This is exactly what the men’s soccer team is witnessing. Unlike the NHL or NFL, where Canadians watch a variety of teams, Canadians are watching soccer because they want to see our athletes do well in what is arguably the biggest sports competition worldwide.  

The demographics of these views were telling as well. When it comes to TV broadcasts, the audiences in general are older. “The typical viewer on linear TV, as we call it, is… in [their] late forties,” Seaborn said. However, according to Seaborn, 37 per cent of the audience watching Tuesday’s game on Sportsnet was under the age of 49. In a sense, Canada’s journey to the World Cup has pulled millennials and Gen Z Canadians off of their Tik Tok videos, Twitch streams, and video games to collaboratively watch a national story unfold.

What the Canadian men’s team has done is impressive in a number of ways. Currently, they are leading men’s teams worldwide in total goals scored, 40th in the worldwide FIFA rankings, and undefeated in the final round of qualifiers. 

Numbers aside, it’s evident that in the middle of a global pandemic, sports is doing what it does best: uniting people in the face of adversity.  

The Canucks, however, have six games left until the end of the final round, and the USA and Mexico are trailing menacingly behind them by a few points. The 2022 Qatar World Cup is still a ways away, but Seaborn said that Canadians were “absolutely dialled in” to the game on Tuesday. If this performance continues, who’s to say that Canadians won’t stay dialled in? 

These present viewership figures can’t guarantee more long-term support for the MLS, the Premier League, or the Canadian Premier League. But, in terms of Canada’s World Cup dreams, our boys are starting to look like a Cinderella team. If that’s true, then the World Cup might just be our royal ball.