DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Canada had just lost its first World Cup match in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a postgame huddle.
“I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and F Croatia," the coach said with a smile, using a single letter to avoid a televised profanity. "That’s as simple as it gets.”
His words reveberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday's Croatia-Canada game approached.
Croatia's 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a fullpage photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the (guts) as well?”
Commenting Saturday on Herdman's words, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić used the word “respect” 13 times in a 90-second span.
“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” he said through a translator. “The way we play, the way we behave and the way we respect all others are the reasons we are worthy of respect.”
Sitting next to Dalić, winger Ivan Perišić said simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”
Speaking before Dalić, Herdman used humor in an attempt to defuse tensions.
“When you get a text from your wife telling me you need to start working out before you get home, yeah, you think you know something’s going on,” Herdman said, noting the newspaper image was of a trimmer midsection than his own.
“My wife’s coming after you guys,” he told a reporter from that Croatian paper, laughing. "She wishes she got that guy. I’ve got a bit more of a belly than that. I’ve been eating too much.”
On Thursday, Herdman had explained what his intent was.
"You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you're asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” he said.
“It's not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they're at on the world stage. But in that moment, you've taken your men to that next place,” he added.
Playing Croatia for the first time, Canada could be eliminated with another defeat.
Croatia, which lost the 2018 final to France, is the world's 12th-ranked team and opened with a 0-0 draw against Morocco. Star Luka Modrić, playing what is likely his last World Cup at age 37, put a first-half shot over the crossbar.
Canada has played just four World Cup games in its history and still is searching for its first goal. The Canadians outshot the Belgians 21-9 but gave up a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass on a counter. Alphonso Davies had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty kick was saved by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover's off from Canada," Herdman said. ”I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more."
Captain Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current roster alive when Canada went 0-3 at the 1986 World Cup, can make his 100th international appearance Sunday — Julian de Guzman is second with 89.
Midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the last World Cup's runner-up.
“We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We're excited for the challenge.”
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