Balls of Bravado: Herdman lit a fire, exactly as he planned

TORONTO, ON – John Herdman knew exactly what he was doing — he knew he ignited a fire. 

“We’re going to go and F Croatia,” he passionately said to the world broadcast after Canada’s 1-0 opening loss to Belgium.

While Canada came into their first men’s World Cup tournament since 1986 without any pressure, there was a sense that they could get a result, especially after the way they played through 40 minutes against the No. 2 ranked team in the world. 

Yet, in an impassioned moment post-match, Herdman knew, maybe subconsciously, what he was doing. 

It was a shrewd, savvy, and calculated move, deflecting the criticism onto him and away from his players. 

“You say those things in an impassioned moment when you’re trying to inspire your team,” Herdman said the day after. “It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian National Team… but at that moment, you’re taking your men to that next place, and we’re here to be fearless.”

Canada’s affable gaffer, born in Consett, England, cut his teeth through the rigours of a tough childhood and proved himself in football without ever playing at an elite level. Yet, with a wealth of footballing and life experience, there’s pride, intelligence and ferocity when the 49-year-old speaks, all disguised in a calm yet motivational demeanour. 

With the loss, amid a positive performance, Canada needs at least a point on Sunday to stay alive in the burgeoning moments of this golden generation. 

A loss to Croatia, and the script flips to 2026. It is no longer about pushing towards an immediate goal but finding success on home soil in four years. That pressure, palpable among the roughly 30,000 Canadian fans who made their way to Qatar, sits upon the shoulders of the CanMNT. 

Although there’s tremendous pressure on Canada’s stars, notably Alphonso Davies, who launched penalty kick debates from coast-to-coast to-coast after failing to score against Belgium, there’s been a mastermind from Herdman. 

His comments, however fierce they are, put him in the same conversations as Davies’ flubbed kick and took the pressure off many of the other players, who could have faced further criticism for several elements of their game, particularly failing to score on 22 shots. 

However, with Herdman’s coyness and swagger, the story on the front of Croatian papers isn’t about Canada’s players or tactics but rather a scandalous photo of the coach, with the caption: 

“You have the mouth, but do you have the balls.”

With so much ink spilled on Herdman, there simply hasn’t been enough time to criticize the Canadian performance as much as it could have been if he had not made those comments. At FIFA press conferences, there are few questions, and many at both Herdman’s and Zlatko Dalić’s availabilities; the post-match words and newspaper cover took up time. 

“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” Dalic said when I asked about Herdman’s comment. “The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone.”

Canada has shown a strong ability to bounce back from losses through qualifying and will be able to test a Croatian side that looked vulnerable in aspects against Morocco. If Croatia is extra eager in the match, they could become susceptible and shift away from the impenetrable midfield that defines their style. 

The comments may have lit a fire under the Croatian team, but if they weren’t already up for the match after a draw with Morocco, you’d have to question just how much they want to be at this World Cup. 

John Herdman has bravado in everything he does, and there’s no doubt that the CanMNT will play “F Croatia” on Sunday, but they do so without the same pressures they may have faced without those comments ringing worldwide. 

“We believe that we can back it up,” CanMNT defender Alistair Johnston said. “No matter what’s said, no matter what pictures are posted in tabloids, it’s all going to come down to what happens in those 90 minutes in the field. And we understand that, and we feel really good about that.”

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