Alphonso Davies needed only 68 seconds to write his name into history as Canada’s first goalscorer at a men’s World Cup. But a dream opening spiralled rapidly into a nightmare when the fastest goal of the tournament so far was cancelled out by Andrej Kramaric (twice), Marko Livaja and Lovro Majer, whose clinical ripostes vaulted Croatia to the top of Group F alongside surprise package Morocco and sent Canada crashing out of their second ever World Cup, nearly four decades after their mostly forgettable debut.
Morocco’s shock 2-0 win over Belgium earlier on Sunday, their first World Cup victory in 24 years and the Belgium’s first group-stage defeat since 1994, had narrowed Canada’s path to the knockout stage but did nothing to change the stakes on the night. John Herdman’s group needed a win or a draw to keep alive their hopes of advancing from a suddenly topsy-turvy group.
Four days after a frustrating 1-0 defeat to Belgium – where Canada became the first side to attempt in 44 years at least 20 shots and a penalty in a game while failing to score – Canada’s first World Cup goal was a thing of sweeping beauty worth the 36-year wait. A long, accurate distribution from goalkeeper Milan Borjan found Tajon Buchanan, who calmly waited on the touchline for Davies to make his run. The 22-year-old Bayern Munich full-back galloped down the pitch in full stride, rising between Josip Juranovic and Dejan Lovren and heading Buchanan’s perfect cross into the back of the net.Quick Guide
It was a spot of redemption for Davies, whose poorly taken penalty in the opening minutes against Belgium cost his side dearly – and perhaps fatally, as it turns out. Canada had to learn to win in Davies’ absence during their run through Concacaf qualifying, when he missed seven of the final 14 matches but Herdman’s team still managed to score more and concede fewer goals than any other side. But there is no question who the star player is and he has shown it throughout Canada’s better moments in Qatar.
Alphonso Davies beats Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic in the second minute to score Canada’s first ever World Cup goal. Photograph: Reuters
The early goal left Croatia momentarily shellshocked as Canada, a blur of collective movement in their black kit, poured on the attack. But it was not long before the big-name holdovers from the World Cup runners-up in 2018 – Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic – found their footing and got matters under control in midfield. Gradually, they got more organised in attack and put one question after another to Canada’s increasingly vulnerable defence.
Croatia appeared to equalise when Kramaric careened around a thicket of black shirts and slid a rolling shot past Borjan after 26 minutes, but he was ruled offside by inches. They came even closer shortly after when Kovacic threaded a beautiful pass to Livaja – Zlatko Dalic’s lone change from the opener against Morocco – whose shot was turned away by the Canada goalkeeper.
The breakthrough when it came seemed inevitable as Perisic slipped through pass into the box for Kramaric, who finished with aplomb and was mobbed by his teammates. By the end of the half it was Croatia controlling possession and threatening with regularity until Livaja’s left-footed missile from a step outside the area tore into the netting for Croatia’s second goal, silencing the thousands of red-clad Canadian supporters packed into the south end of the Khalifa International Stadium.
Herdman, the 47-year-old Consett in County Durham, made a pair of changes at half-time – the young midfielder Ismaël Koné for the injured Stephen Eustáquio and Jonathan Osorio for Cyle Larin – and went to a three-man back line shortly after. Canada responded with a pair of promising chances in the opening 10 minutes, but the tactical fine-tuning was no answer for the humming Croatian midfield, who launched one counterattack after another that left Canada’s defence on the back foot.
Kramaric nearly had a second in the 54th minute when he found himself unattended at the top of the area only for his shot to be turned away by Borjan. The double finally came in the 70th minute when the Hoffenheim striker calmly collected a cross from Ivan Perisic inside the area and took one touch before firing a left-footed shot into the far corner through the legs of the captain, Atiba Hutchinson, the lone Canadian player who was alive the last time the country played in a World Cup and whose 100th international appearance will be one to forget. Majer made it four deep into stoppage time after a ghastly mistake by Kamal Miller, sending Croatia’s ultras into a state of delirium.
Canada had not even come close to qualifying for the World Cup since their first and only appearance back in 1986, when they crashed out of the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the USSR without scoring a goal. Eight years ago, they were down to 122nd in the Fifa rankings, having been frozen out of the final round of Concacaf qualifying once again by an 8-1 bludgeoning at the hands of Honduras, before finally plotting a return to the sport’s biggest stage. This time they have shown far better, playing enthralling football at times, but will head home with cruelly little to show for it before co-hosting in four years’ time.