By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
DOHA (Reuters) - Canada fulfilled at least some of their World Cup objectives despite exiting at the group stage: scoring their first goal in the history of the tournament and showing they can battle some of the world's top sides.
John Herdman, who took the reins of the team in 2018, had been on a mission to transform the image of the men's game in a country where ice hockey dominates the public psyche. Canada's combativeness in Qatar undoubtedly has raised the status of the sport ahead of the 2026 tournament, which the country will co-host with the United States and Mexico.
In two consecutive losses -- one to second-ranked Belgium and the other to 2018 finalists Croatia -- Canada have shown they can challenge, though not consistently beat, sides with more experience and depth.
The defining moment for Canada, in their first appearance at the finals since 1986, was a poorly-struck penalty by Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies that could have given Canada a lead against Belgium in the first half, which the Canadians surprisingly dominated.
Some Canadians were baffled that Davies would hit an uncharacteristically weak penalty against Thibaut Courtois, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world, but Herdman commended his player for taking initiative and carrying "the weight of a nation".
Herdman succeeded in deflecting scrutiny away from his players after their 1-0 loss to Belgium, infuriating the Croatian media by voicing the expletive threat that Canada would "eff Croatia".
The comments provided fodder for Croatian tabloids, one of which ran a full-page picture of a naked Herdman, maple leaves covering his mouth and private parts, with the headline: "You have the mouth, but do you have the balls as well?"
Herdman's impolitic comments might have fired up the Canadians in the early minutes of their Croatia match on Sunday, with Davies beating goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic with a powerful header in the second minute.
But Croatia answered mercilessly by capitalizing on Canada's suspect defending in the first half, scoring twice in eight minutes before adding two more goals after the break.
The World Cup is being expanded from 32 nations to 48 from 2026 and, while Canada have qualified automatically as one of the hosts, they can hope to become regulars under the bigger format at subsequent tournaments.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Clare Fallon)