It is the most common dream in the world.
From Jakarta to Rio de Janeiro, from Dakar to Dublin, Tokyo to Tijuana, kids kick balls on sandy lots or dusty alleys or lush pitches with the hope of one day playing in the biggest sporting event on the planet.
But for Canadian boys, the dream seemed too distant. Too audacious. Canada wasn’t a soccer nation. This country didn’t take part in World Cup championships.
Just eight years ago, Canada’s men’s team sat 122nd in the FIFA standings.
But to quote John Herdman, the country’s beloved coach, this is a new Canada.
Now, 26 Canadians are about to live out their childhood dreams. Those who helped get them to where they are today, well, they’re part of the dream, too.
From Le Gardeur, Que., to Qatar
Martin Piette fights back tears as he tries to express just how much he loves his nephew, CF Montreal defensive midfielder Samuel Piette.
“Normally, our idols are older than us, but my idol is Sam,” he said.
The large, tightly knit Piette family has been watching from up close, gathering at Saputo Stadium in Montreal to watch the 28-year-old’s games.
The family always knew Samuel Piette had talent, but the thought of him going to the World Cup never crossed their minds.
Now, the 28-year-old has earned 66 caps with Team Canada heading into the World Cup and hopes to pick up seven more before it’s over. If his family wasn’t thinking about the World Cup when Samuel was a boy, he definitely was.
“When he was small he had a project in school ‘Where will you be in 2040?’ or something like that,” said his mother, Linda, from her home in Repentigny, a Montreal suburb. “And Sam said ‘professional soccer player and play in the World Cup.'”
Piette’s father says Samuel’s confidence on the pitch has been growing over the past few months.
“It looks like he’s taking more initiative on the attack this year compared to last. He’s trying longer passes and I think it went well,” said Stéphane Piette.
The couple is in Qatar along with Piette’s father-in-law to watch Canada’s group stage games. Samuel’s fiancée, their son and his father in-law are there, too. The Piettes who stayed behind will have at least three more reunions as they’ll watch the games together.
The new kid
While Piette has spent years solidifying his standing in the eyes of Team Canada’s decision makers, Ismael Koné burst onto the scene like he was shot out of a cannon.
The 20-year-old only made his professional debut in February, with his hometown team, CF Montreal. Weeks later, he was wearing a Team Canada jersey in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica.
If there was any doubt whether Canada Soccer would take a risk on the youngster, his performance in the penultimate friendly against Bahrain on Nov. 11 sealed his place on the team.
Koné scored the game’s opening goal after a deft touch and a blistering run. He showed the poise of a seasoned veteran as he coolly whistled the ball in the top right corner for his first international goal.
“I think he took the game by the scruff of the neck with his confidence,” coach Herdman told TSN after the game.
“He doesn’t understand his talent. His talent is incredible. Incredible,” marvelled Rocco Placentino, the man who spotted Koné as a 15-year-old playing in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.
The sporting director of the Saint-Laurent Soccer Club always believed Koné could become a pro, but says watching him force his way onto Team Canada and into the World Cup has been a dream, albeit a dream he wasn’t sure he could believe.
The days and hours waiting to see if Koné would get the call-up were stressful, at least for Placentino. Koné, Placentino explains, is too chill for stress.
Placentino cried when Koné’s place was confirmed. He predicts one of the youngest men in the tournament will play a key role for Canada.
“For him it’s just another soccer game,” he said incredulously.
Placentino communicates with Koné nearly every day and will be in Qatar, along with Koné’s mother, to watch Canada’s first two games.
‘Emotion ran through this house like crazy’
James Pantemis was a longshot to make the team. But when Maxime Crépeau suffered an injury, the Kirkland, Que., native got the call.
“The emotion ran through this house like crazy,” said Nick Pantemis, James’s father.
Pantemis played a key role in CF Montreal’s best-ever season in the MLS but his father has no illusions about his son’s role on the national squad. The player will be slotted in as either backup or the third string goaltender and is unlikely to get any game action.
Nick Pantemis, who coached his son as he made his way up the ranks on Montreal’s West Island, is in Qatar with one of James’s cousins to support the team anyway.
“He took the most difficult job in the sport [the keeper position] to avoid running up and down the field,” Pantemis chuckled.
If Canadian soccer fans thought hoping for a World Cup entry was far too ambitious, James Pantemis believed all along.
In 2016, when James Pantemis was just 19 years, CBC asked about his dreams. He was succinct: “To be a professional soccer player and play in Montreal one day and hopefully represent Canada in the men’s and bring them to the World Cup.”
For Pantemis to get that spot, something had to give. That something was Maxime Crépeau’s right leg.
The Los Angeles keeper’s bone snapped after he collided with Philadelphia Union forward Cory Burke on a breakaway in a MLS Cup final overtime on Nov. 5.
“I heard the noise and I knew right away it was over,” Crépeau said.
The Candiac, Que., native was pretty much guaranteed to back up goalkeeper Milan Borjan in the tournament.
His heroics saved what would have been an easy goal and his team went on to win in penalties. But soon after, he says he was mourning his missed opportunity.
Crépeau will be cheering from his home in L.A., but it won’t be easy.
“I guarantee you the emotions will be there because I have been with these guys for a long time, and we’ve sacrificed and … brought the country together when nobody believed in us,” he said.
Crépeau promises to be ready for his next chance. He’ll be 32 when North America hosts the next World Cup in four years.