John Herdman led the Canadian men’s soccer team into Dubai on Wednesday evening, in advance of one final tune-up against Japan on Thursday before their first World Cup in 36 years. His typically meticulous plans were undone almost immediately.
“A bit of a tricky travel day,” he said.
The Canadians had trained at their World Cup base camp in Qatar before making their short flight to Dubai. Their plane arrived 90 minutes early. Counterintuitively, perhaps, that made the rest of the evening’s agenda more difficult, not less.
They were meant to head straight from the airport to Al Maktoum Stadium, a 15,000-seat venue that’s more usually home to Al Nasr SC of the UAE Pro League, a little after 7 p.m. local time. Herdman was to talk to the media, and the players were going to walk on the grass, as though they could learn something by the feel of it.
Instead, they arrived to horrendous rush-hour traffic, just when the Japanese began their own training session under Al Maktoum’s lights.
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To prevent spying or tampering, FIFA rules prohibit one team from being in a stadium while another team trains. Rather than head for the team’s hotel, wait for the appointed arrival time, and get back on the bus to fight the traffic twice, Herdman elected to give his charges the night off.
“There were a lot of tired, tired boys,” he said. “The key now is the guys get their food and get to bed and get excited for this big game.”
For Herdman, the sheer terror that must have accompanied the abrupt change in plans — he’s so fanatical in his approach, he personally maps the routes the team bus takes — was perhaps offset by the chance for him to spend a few extra minutes obsessing over everything that’s to come. He might have wanted his players to sleep. He wasn’t about to catch much.
“There’s a lot going through my mind,” he said. “It’s a bit of nervous period of time.”
Herdman just isn’t the sort of person who breezes into anything, let alone a World Cup. Playing Japan at all at this stage is emblematic of his relentless approach. To his mind, nothing can really prepare you for the biggest games of your career. All you can do is play, and then play some more.
Unfortunately, every minute on the field carries risk with it, as Doneil Henry learned before last week’s friendly against Bahrain. The Canadian defender tried to push through calf tightness during warmups, ended up with a tear, and will now miss the World Cup as a player, at least. He will still accompany the team to Qatar.
Herdman’s fear of further attrition against Japan is outweighed by his desire to hit the desert ground running. “It’s about getting into international rhythm,” he said.
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The Japanese, making their seventh consecutive World Cup appearance, play a highly organized style that’s difficult to crack, and they’ll be a stiff test for the Canadians, who open their second-ever men’s tournament against vaunted Belgium on Nov. 23.
“Their collective mentality, their tactical acumen,” Herdman said. “I think this is going to be a really difficult match for Canada, but we want a difficult game.”
Herdman is so keen on the work, he’s even scheduled an additional 45 minutes of play against a local professional team after. Thursday’s atmosphere obviously won’t be anything like the frenzy of the World Cup, and nerves will no doubt still surface upon the team’s return to Doha. But like a boxer jumping rope, the Canadians should benefit from a relatively low-pressure chance to find their feet.
It’s also one last opportunity for his team to acclimate to local conditions. The forecast high for Thursday in Dubai is 34 degrees. (It might be a dry heat, but it’s still very hot.) It will be a little cooler at kickoff, scheduled for 5:40 PM local time, as the sun goes down in this sprawling, glittering city.
John Herdman will no doubt see plenty of Dubai’s nighttime sparkle — so long as his new plans include the occasional glance out his hotel-room window while he continues his preparations.
If there is ever a time for him to rest, now isn’t it. Now is the time of his life.