Injured defender Doneil Henry doing his bit off the pitch to help Canada at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar — Doneil Henry's World Cup experience has been far different than the one he originally hoped for. But the veteran defender is still doing whatever he can for Canada.

Sidelined by a calf injury on the eve of the tournament, Henry is still with the Canadian team but in a non-playing role. He has been doing everything from "a little bit of tactical work on the computers" to taking the emotional pulse of his teammates.

"Just literally being a big brother," he said in an interview. "Just making sure everybody's mood is right, making sure the energy within the team (is right) and obviously just pointing (out) defensive stuff that I think we can either work on or rectify, fix for the next game.

"Besides that, I'm just helping out wherever I'm needed. If that means I'm helping with equipment or doing stuff on the technical side. Whatever's needed, I'll do it."

The 29-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has won 44 caps for Canada and was about to add to that number on Nov. 11 in Manama where he was scheduled to captain Canada for the second time in a pre-tournament friendly against Bahrain two days before coach John Herdman named his 26-man World Cup roster.

"I felt good all week, training well," Henry recalled.

But he felt a "sharp pain" in his calf during the pre-game warm-up.

"I tried to stretch it and continue going but it just got worse and worse," he said.

The initial diagnosis was recovery would take up to 14 days, with Canada's opening game at the tournament Nov. 23 — 12 days later.

Henry opted to take his name out of World Cup contention, saying it was just the right thing to do.

"The way I always envision myself as a player is I don't look for sympathy. I don't make excuses. I always want to do it the right way," Henry explained. "As much as I've been part of this team for the last four years and believe in it, buying into a system and a way of playing and the principle that we've laid a foundation for, I knew that there were players in this team who deserved it and who are ready to step on the field to make sure that they can give us the best opportunity to win."

That sacrifice drew a tribute from Herdman, who said seeing Henry go down was one of the "toughest moments of my career."

"Doneil put the team first … We could have tried to return him to play and had him later on in the tournament. But he knew it was the right decision to make, to allow another player that had earned that right and that was fully fit to come and take that opportunity,'' the coach said at the time. "It was a big moment.

"It really shows the courage and what this brotherhood's about when a man can sort of surrender his shirt and take that step forward to support the team in a different role.''

It was not an easy decision to make. But Henry, who is a member of the Canadian team's leadership group, says Herdman sold him on it in the emotional aftermath of the injury.

His message was simple.

"I can't make you feel better for what you're going through but you won't feel better at home. And your boys need you here. So take the time you need. Figure it out but make sure you're ready to help the boys," Henry recalled Herdman telling him.

"The boys have been really good to me," Henry added. "As much as they could use me, I need them. They've made this transition a lot easier for me to handle while here in Qatar."

Herdman has consistently talked up Henry in months past, saying how important the centre back is to the squad. Henry returns the compliment.

"John is a loyal man. He's always been good to his players. He's always been very very very transparent with what he wants and what he believes in."

At the World Cup, Henry has been living Canada's games from his perch on the bench.

"Watching from the sidelines my heart was racing the entire time," he admitted. "I felt like I was on the field at certain points I was so into the game.

"I left those two games very very proud of the boys because we left it all out there. We gave it everything. And maybe on another day we get the result. Definitely positives to continue to build on."

After losing 1-0 to No. 2 Belgium and 4-1 to No. 22 Croatia, the 41st-ranked Canadians wrap up tournament play Thursday against No. 22 Morocco.

As for the calf, Henry reports it is improving every day.

"The staff has been amazing in taking the lead and making sure that I get back into a good place, get back into training and to set me up well to where I go next."

He's not sure where exactly that will be. Henry is out of contract with Toronto FC, which brought him back in July for a second stint after he was waived by Los Angeles FC.

Henry has also spent time with South Korea's Suwon Bluewings, Vancouver Whitecaps, Ottawa Fury, Norway's AC Horsens and England's West Ham and Blackburn.

He has family support in Qatar with his parents and sister on hand as well as his girlfriend.

Henry has been a stalwart for Canada, taking part in two cycles of World Cup qualifying and three Gold Cups. He captained Canada for the first time in October 2021.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press