Canadian fans inspired despite team's loss in first World Cup appearance since 1986
For Canadian soccer fans, the excitement of seeing their country play in the men's World Cup for the first time in 36 years gave way to disappointment Wednesday as their team fell just short.
Even though the Canadians lost 1-0 to Belgium, many fans who gathered at watch parties across the country said they were inspired by the team's performance.
Felicia Wall, who was watching the game at Vancouver's Croatian Culture Centre with her brother Nik, said she was proud, despite the result.
"It's fun to see all of our nation be able to cheer for Canada instead of Italy, or Germany, or wherever we've had to cheer for before, and to really feel like the nation is all coming together for one team ... it's really inspiring," said Wall, dressed in a red shirt with a Canadian logo.
Pubs and restaurants on Vancouver's Commercial Drive were packed with fans hoping to see the Canadian soccer team score its first-ever World Cup goal. During halftime, fans went into the street to wave flags and chant "Canada," as cars honked in support.
It was a moment some fans said they'd been waiting for their entire lives.
Morgan Stacey, who was not born the last time Canada was in the World Cup, said it felt "pretty incredible" to cheer on Team Canada. "It's the first time in my life that I have ever gotten to see them compete in this tournament," he said. Stacey, 28, watched at the Burgundy Lion Pub in Montreal, which was at full capacity by kickoff, with more eager fans waiting to get in.
As Canada prepared to take a penalty shot early in the game, fans were on the edge of their seats, screaming as star winger Alphonso Davies lined up for the shot. The excitement turned to dismay when the Belgian goalkeeper stopped the attempt.
Students at St. Nicholas Catholic Junior High in Edmonton, where Davies attended and played in the school's soccer academy, said seeing their favourite alumnus play on the world's biggest soccer stage was inspiring.
"It's incredible thinking that someone from Edmonton, Alberta, going to St. Nic's and making it to such a high level with such amazing footballers. It just inspires me that I could do the same," said Malik McDonald, 13, a student at the soccer academy who plays as a striker.
Students at the school filled a gym where the Canadian star used to play and watched the game on a giant screen.
"It's really motivating, because someone in my own position went so far in their career, it gives you hope that you could do that, if you try hard enough," said Mary Mahe, another St. Nicholas student.
In Montreal, which is home to a large Belgian community, not all the fans who turned out to watch were backing Canada. As Belgium scored the game's only goal, there were enthusiastic cheers at the Burgundy Lion, but some of those cheers were tinged with disappointment.
"It was close. I suffered a lot with all those Canadians around me because I love Canada, but I am glad Belgium won," said Nicolas Spieckerman, a 42-year-old from Belgium.
Fellow Belgian David Dejean, 44, had a similar assessment. "I was disappointed for my Canadian friends. We didn't deserve to win," he said.
Even though Canada fell behind late in the first half, fans remained hopeful throughout the game.
Canadian women's team captain Christine Sinclair, who was among the dozens of fans watching the game at an electronics store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto, said she has waited her whole life to see Canada's men on a World Cup pitch. She thinks they have a chance to make it to the next stage of the tournament.
"I have been very impressed with how Canada showed up. They played pretty well, the whole half, dominated Belgium," Sinclair, 39, said during the halftime break. "But unfortunately sports are cruel, and there is a reason why Belgium is one of the top teams in the world. They get one chance and put it in the back or the net. Now Canada has to chase."
The men's World Cup performance "is only going to help the sport to grow here in Canada," she added.
Canada's next game is on Sunday morning against 2018 finalist Croatia.
With files from Marisela Amador in Montreal, Bob Weber in Edmonton, Sharif Hassan in Toronto and Nono Shen in Vancouver.