Canada enters the Men’s World Cup strong after a last-second win over Japan in the final setup match

In football, experience tells. Japan is about to contest its seventh consecutive Men’s World Cup. Canada is about to play its first in 36 years. Good teams, good players, have a nose for insecurity, for uncertainty, for weakness.

It took Japan eight minutes to find him in Canada.

The Canadians needed the rest of the game to show they had strengths as well.

Canada’s 2-1 victory in Dubai on Thursday – a final set-up for both teams before their World Cup campaigns in Qatar begin – didn’t exactly happen in a cauldron. There were perhaps 1,000 fans at Al Maktoum Stadium. The evening air was warm and still rather than electric.

Even in the absence of nerves or pressure, the countless tiny gulfs that exist between Canada’s best players and the best in the world have begun to open.

WATCH | Lucas Cavallini scores the victory from a penalty kick:

Cavallini’s penalty in the final gives Canada victory in the last friendly before the World Cup

Richie Laryea equalized a penalty in stoppage time and Lucas Cavallini’s ‘Panenka’ penalty kick gave Canada a 2-1 victory in the international friendly against Japan in Dubai. Canada’s next match will be on November 23 against Belgium in the FIFA World Cup.

Milan Borjan, the goalkeeper who guided Canada through their epic qualifying run with his stellar saves and charismatic leadership, has a fundamental flaw. He’s not good with feet. He is 35 years old and there is no way to resolve this difficult fact. He is what he is he.

Before the Canadians really had a chance to find their rhythm, he missed clearing a fairly easy ball, failing to kick it in half. Coach John Herdman, pacing the touchline like a man waiting for an important phone call, stopped his perpetual motion to tell Borjan to calm down.

The Japanese, having spotted so much of the field, had already mounted their precision counter by that point. They cut down the center of the field and Yuki Soma handled a long through ball with precision and slotted it home.

Japan’s Yuki Soma celebrates after scoring against Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan in a friendly on Thursday. (Christopher Pike/Associated Press)

This is how the game works at this level. It’s designed to expose you for all that you are.

Including the size of your heart. The Canadians showed some of their admirable courage and regrouped, returning the first shot in the 21st minute. Steven Vitória headed home a corner kick which went uncharacteristically unclear by the Japanese.

Everyone makes mistakes.

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Soccer North: Can Canada exit group stage in Qatar?

Host Andi Petrillo keeps you up to date with the biggest news from Canada’s men’s and women’s national teams.

And in the last seconds of the second half, in the midst of added time, the Japanese scored another. Richie Laryea was brought down in the box and the Canadians were awarded a penalty.

Lucas Cavallini lined up to get it. He was lucky that the Japanese goalkeeper fell just enough for his reckless Panenka, the ball slipped out of his glove and into the net.

It was an unlikely, happy ending to a sloppy match and the result shouldn’t mask the flaws that have been exposed.

In the 35th minute Borjan again makes a gift to the Japanese, this time with a short ball that crosses slightly with Kamal Miller. In that case, Miller blocked the resulting dangerous shot and the gift went unpunished.

Back in Qatar, they were still taking notes: Return the ball to Borjan and then take it from him.

This was already the script when Canada played a friendly against Uruguay in September. He was pressed relentlessly.

That time, Canada was defeated, 2-0. Subsequently, many observers, especially Herdman, have built an optimistic narrative. He stated that the game was within his team’s reach. If only the Canadians had exhausted their opportunities, they would have had a chance to win.

Australia’s coach Graham Arnold shouts during a friendly soccer match between Canada and Japan in Dubai on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/) (Christopher Pike/Associated Press)

They didn’t. This is the difference between good and great, between upstart and veteran.

But sometimes in life, luck bridges the gap.

It should come as no surprise if the Canadians fall short against the more vaunted teams ahead. Belgium and Croatia in particular: those teams are hypothetical win against Canada. They are better in every respect. They will almost certainly finish what Japan could not.

That doesn’t mean Canada’s group of inspired and inspiring men shouldn’t be enjoying every moment of the sun they’ve earned, including their lucky win on Thursday night.

The only tragedy will be if Canada doesn’t take the one opportunity it knows it will be given in the coming days and weeks: to stand alongside the greatest players on Earth, be honest about the ways they are special, and fix that next time we will rely less on luck and more on ourselves.


Soccer North Episode 4 arrives on Friday CBC Gem, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports YouTube channel.

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