8 veterans likely to play final World Cup match in Qatar

Canada’s Alastair Johnston can’t wait to test himself against the best in Qatar

When asked by fans and pundits who will be Canada’s most important player at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Alphonso Davies’ name is not often brought up as an answer.

At 22, the Edmonton native is already an international superstar thanks to his exploits at German club Bayern Munich, where he established himself as one of the best left-backs in the world, and the Canadian men’s team. Became the first member to win the championship. UEFA Champions League.

But spare a thought for the underappreciated Alastair Johnston, one of only two players to play in all 14 games for Canada in the final round of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign.

“[Johnston] He has a very high football IQ,” says former Canadian international Patrice Bernier. He’s very intelligent on the ball. A very intelligent player. He’s never tense, always calm. He’s the type of player that coaches love. Because he’s versatile. You can put him in any position on the field and he’ll be able to pull it off.

“He flies under the radar because he’s not flashy. You don’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, he’s fast,’ or say, ‘Wow, he’s technically gifted.’ No. He’s spot on, he’s consistent, he never puts a foot wrong. That’s what you see about him.”

Vancouver-born Johnston, 24, became Canada’s “Mr. Credible” as the team toured North and Central America during qualifiers, from Hamilton to San Pedro Sula and all points in between, among others. More starts (11) and more minutes (1,020) than forward Jonathan David. Whether it was in the brutal cold of the Commonwealth Stadium against Costa Rica or inside the footballing cathedral of Estadio Azteca against the mighty Mexico, the CF Montreal defender has been a constant presence for the men’s team as he prepares for the World Cup. Bought a ticket. First time since 1986.

Last week, Johnston started in Canada’s final warm-up game before the World Cup in a 2-1 win over Japan, making his 28th consecutive appearance to pass Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer Bruce Wilson. The new team set a record. Johnston’s star is on the rise, and the general belief in the Canadian soccer community is that he will be the country’s next big export to a major European club — possibly as soon as the tournament in Qatar ends next month. .

But before that, in the opening game of the World Cup on Wednesday, it is important for Canada to play against Belgium. While Canada returns to the Big Dance after a 36-year absence, the competition is the second appearance for Belgium, having made 13 previous appearances, including in Russia four years ago, and twice semi-finals. have reached the finals.

Currently ranked number two in the FIFA World Rankings, Belgium are packed with high-quality attacking players who ply their trade for some of the biggest clubs in Europe and regularly compete in the UEFA Champions League, particularly the Manchester City Kevin De Bruyne. Then on Sunday, Canada will face 41st-ranked 12th-ranked Croatia, led by the incomparable Luka Modric, who is rightly considered one of the best midfielders in the world and a 2018 World Cup final. He guided his country. The Dec. 1 match against Morocco, ranked No. 22 in the world, won’t be a walk in the park either.

For a defender, going up against the best nations in CONCACAF is one thing. It’s a whole different story when you have to stop the likes of Belgium and Croatia. Still, for Johnston, who only started for Canada in 2021 and backed up a year ago, testing his defensive wits against some of the sport’s biggest stars is a difficult task to admit.

“You look at what these top guys do week in and week out in the Champions League – you look at what De Bruyne or Modric do – and it really boils down to how they handle the ball. As a defender, It’s a big challenge and that’s what we love,” says Johnston. “We want to test ourselves against the best forwards and the best midfielders in the world. We want to show that we are Canadian, that there are some good players, and that we are not just a hockey country. We have some stereotypes to break. ”

Having just completed his third MLS season, Johnston carries himself with a calm confidence and plays with a sense of dread that is common in a player so inexperienced. It served him well when he went up against more experienced forwards at club level and on the international stage.

A sense of dread is something he chose out of necessity while growing up, first in Montreal and later in Aurora, Ont. Everything turned into a rivalry between Johnston and his two brothers.

“I was the middle child, so you have to be fearless in your approach, and you’re constantly fighting for everything. We’re all athletes, all two years apart, so it was a very competitive environment to work on every single one. growing up. It made me fearless. I always had the attitude, ‘I don’t really care who you are. Let’s go. Let’s get tight,'” Johnston says.

“I played hockey in the winter and soccer in the summer, and I was always known as a guy who liked to body check and beat guys. I always liked the feeling of putting someone down, like That’s as crazy as it sounds, and I just brought that attitude to football. I still love a good tackle to this day. Nothing excites me more. [than] If I get knocked down by an opponent or I get knocked into him and it’s clean and the guy starts pushing me back. That’s what I like.”

Johnston’s path to playing at the World Cup is remarkable when you consider that just three years ago he was playing for Van Azzurri in Ligue 1 Ontario. In January 2020, he was selected 11th overall by Nashville SC in the MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest University and has quickly become one of the league’s best right-backs, whether at fullback or wingback. was assigned as His stock rose further after last year’s trade to CF Montreal, where he helped the team finish third overall in the MLS standings while being key to Canada’s World Cup qualification campaign. role playing

Within three years, he had gone on to cut his teeth in NCAA football and play in one of the biggest sporting events on the planet for a semi-pro team in North Toronto. His head was still spinning, and he barely had time to reflect on the war-speed trip.

“It’s honestly been so hard the last 24 months that there’s never been time to even really sit down and think about it,” Johnston says. “It will probably wait until after the World Cup for me to think about it and reflect on the fact that I will have checked a very big box that most players don’t get the chance to tick.”

For the past few days, head coach John Herdman has been putting his squad through training sessions ahead of Wednesday’s game against Belgium, and if history is any indication, Johnston will be in the starting XI, most likely Back as three parts. With Steven Vitoria and CF Montreal teammate Kamal Miller.

Soon after both teams walk through the tunnel and onto the pitch at the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, Johnston will realize a childhood dream. But even beyond getting his first touch during the World Cup games, there is one moment he’s pictured in his head more than any other:

“Hearing ‘Oh Canada,’ honestly, that’s the moment I thought about because singing our national anthem is so special to us. It’s something John [Herdman] Really emphasized. He wants us to be loud and proud when we sing. And I want the other group to think to themselves, ‘Well, this is not the old Canada we’ve seen before.’ It’s a different team. This is a team that plays for the glory of its country. This will be the most emotional moment for me. When we’re all there, I’ll be thinking, ‘Wow, we’re really making it on the world stage and representing Canada on the biggest stage in sports.’ How strange is that?’ That’s the moment I’m all the more excited about,” says Johnston.

“It’s going to be special. All Canadians should be singing at the beginning of the game to hear the national anthem. You don’t want to miss it. But at the same time, it’s going to be difficult because one minute later the ball will be To be in the game and it’s me against Kevin De Bruyne. It’s going to leave those feelings aside.

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