Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.
Canada Soccer House opened in Doha on Tuesday night, a little pocket of semi-Canadian territory staked out in advance of the first men's World Cup game for the country in 36 years.
Canada plays Belgium here Wednesday, in the relative cool of 10 p.m. local time, 2 p.m. ET.
Earlier in the day, head coach John Herdman captured what so many in attendance were feeling. "It's real now," he said. "It's getting more real by the hour as the first game looms."
There was still a competing sense of disbelief among the happy but far-from-rowdy crowd who had gathered at Canada Soccer House — a mix of the team's friends and family (they were in their own sequestered area), Canadian soccer bigwigs, hardcore fans dressed like Mounties, and casual supporters who live in Doha and enjoyed an unexpected taste of home.
Canada Soccer House is more like Canada Soccer Pool Deck. Canadians are essentially taking over an outdoor restaurant and rooftop pool at the Hilton in The Pearl district of Doha, a swanky part of the city popular with ex-pats.
For $249, guests received a Canadian scarf and tickets good for some bar food — including chicken wings and a reasonable facsimile of poutine — and precisely seven drinks. They also got a handshake from Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis, who had put his Qatar World Cup pin into the lapel of his pink jacket upside-down.
At one end of the pool, an outdoor TV has been set up for watching games. The opening-night viewing was a little sobering for Canadian soccer fans, even for those who had gone through all seven of their drink tickets.
Australia was playing France, and after the Aussies scored a surprise early goal, they were being dragged back to Earth by the favoured French, 4-1.
WATCH | Canada gears up for 1st World Cup match:
It was a dose of soccer reality after the morning's shock result: Saudi Arabia beat Lionel Messi and the rest of Argentina, 2-1.
That game seemed to give Canadians belief that they could pull off the same kind of upset against Belgium, ranked second in the world by FIFA. Soccer analysts have given the Canadians just a 17 per cent chance of defeating their much more experienced opponents. (That was up from 15 per cent, after Herdman announced that Alphonso Davies, an injury concern, would start.)
The Australians were at a greater disadvantage against the defending champions. They'd been given only a nine per cent chance. Still: Soccer is a game of finding strength and exploiting weakness, and on paper, at least, the Belgians have more of the first and the Canadians more of the second.
But there was a reminder at Canada Soccer House of a different trophy, often hoisted by men who possess something beautiful and intangible, an unquantifiable element that's hard to find anywhere outside the human heart.
Someone had thought to bring along an inflatable Stanley Cup.
High above the neon lights and white towers of The Pearl, desert stars were shining. Improbably, more than a hundred Canadians stood under them together, raising glasses and bottles and each other's hopes. That they were there at all told them that life sometimes breaks your way, and strange magic happens.
Seven drinks in, on a warm night in Doha, they had no trouble imagining that it might again.
WATCH | Complete Team Canada press conference from Qatar: