Canada enters 1st World Cup in 36 years plagued by injuries

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Canada coach John Herdman spoke of the thrill that striker Alphonso Davies felt arriving this week in Doha — Canada’s first appearance in the World Cup in 36 years.

“He’s really excited,” Herdman said Saturday with Canada opening next week against Belgium. “Who wouldn’t be when you see an 80-foot poster of yourself when you are driving into your hotel.”

But some of the thrill is already gone for Davies and Canada. The poster might even be false advertising if Davies can’t take the field.

Bayern Munich’s rising star and Canada’s best player may not be able to play against Belgium, nursing a hamstring injury that has kept him out of recent World Cup warmups.

Herdman said Davies was “still building toward top speed. But he hasn’t hit that top speed yet.”

“When you have hamstring injuries, there’s always the key moment,” Herdman added. “That’s when the hamstring is pushed, pushed to its limits.”

Herdman didn’t say it flat out, but hinted that he’s leaning toward keeping him out against Belgium, hoping he heals for matches against Morocco and Croatia in Group F.

The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to the knockout round of 16.

Herdman said Belgium was probably the best team that Canada has faced since playing Brazil more than a decade ago.

“We’ve got to get this one right because it could be a long tournament for Canada,” Herdman said, meaning Canada might surprise and survive the group stage. “And that’s the last thing I want is for Alphonso to miss this.”

Having Davies injured is bad enough. But two other top Canadian players are also questionable with injuries: playmaking midfielder Stephen Eustaquio and No. 1 goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

Some would say they’re Canada’s top three players.

Eustaquio has an unspecified injury, and Borjan complained of abdominal pain in Canada’s 2-1 victory over Japan on Thursday in a friendly in Dubai. Borjan was held out of training on Saturday.

“That’s the life of a coach,” Herdman said. “I mean, it’s bleak on one side but it’s opportunity on the other.”

This is nothing new for the Canadians, who finished first in qualifying from the CONCACAF region despite repeated injuries to top players. Despite it all, Canada beat Mexico 2-1 on home soil, and drew 1-1 in Mexico City’s treacherous Aztec stadium.

Canada also defeated the United States 2-0 and home in qualifying, and drew 1-1 in Nashville.

“We played multiple games without Alphonso Davies during qualifying and we did really well,” Canada midfielder Samuel Piette said. “We don’t want to miss these guys. We want these guys on the pitch. But at the same time, it’s who’s ready to answer the call.”

Piette repeated what Herdman and other players have mentioned — the little chip that Canadian players have on the their shoulders.

“We want to shock the world and show that Canada is a serious football country, and a serious team,” Piette said. “And hopefully we start on the right foot against Belgium.”

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