Canada has finalized its pre-World Cup plans, adding a warm-up game and camp in Bahrain ahead of next month’s soccer showcase in Qatar.
The Canadian men, ranked 41st in the world, will face No. 85 Bahrain on Nov. 11 in Manama ahead of a previously scheduled game Nov. 17 against No. 24 Japan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
For coach John Herdman, the Bahrain camp is a chance to see and test players who have been sidelined by injury or whose seasons ended early. Toronto FC, home to Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Doneil Henry, last played Oct. 9, for example.
“Anyone who knows football (knows) there’s fitness and then there’s football fitness,” Herdman said. “They’re two different things. So match rhythm and match intensity is absolutely critical to being ready to go up against the teams that we have to go up against.
“This game against Bahrain certainly gives those players that have been out of season or struggling to get game time in their club settings an opportunity to come in, gain some solid international minutes, knowing that for some of them it’s like a pre-season. It’s an important game for us. Really important for those players that need that additional experience before we play Japan.”
The camp will also help players get acclimatized to the conditions expected at the World Cup. And the fact that Bahrain is hosting the camp helps the Canada Soccer bottom line.
Canada opens Group F play at the World Cup on Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 12 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 22 Morocco on Dec. 1.
There is no shortage of question-marks.
Osorio, dealing with post-concussion syndrome, has played just 18 minutes since an Aug. 20 start against Inter Miami. Captain Atiba Hutchinson (Besiktas, Turkey) is training again after a bone bruise suffered in pre-season. Midfielder David Wotherspoon (St. Johnstone, Scotland) is back in action after 10 months out following knee surgery.
The Bahrain match, to be played at the Al-Khalifa Stadium, will be Canada’s last international test before the full squad gets together when the official FIFA international window opens for the World Cup, which runs Nov. 20 to Dec. 18. The Japan friendly falls in the window.
Nov. 14 is FIFA’s mandated date to release players for the World Cup. And many will be playing right up until then.
Bayern Munich, home to Alphonso Davies, visits FC Schalke 04 on Nov. 12. On Nov. 13, Lille and striker Jonathan David host Angers while Club Brugge (Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin) entertains Antwerp.
Herdman will be watching, with fingers crossed.
“At this stage you just never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “In these next four weeks, there could be anything happening. Worldwide, we’re starting to see a lot of key players — (France’s) N’Gole Kante, (Portugal’s Diogo) Jota — being injured and are dropping out of squads.
“Another key step is to just make sure that we get a chance to keep an eye on every player. They’re getting assessed right up until that (World Cup) selection notification. And we’re keeping people motivated and ready to be ready to be next man up or to earn an opportunity to show that they were more ready than another player.”
Nov. 14 also marks the deadline for countries to name their World Cup rosters, which can be up to 26 players.
Herdman said available players will start arriving in Bahrain on Nov. 4 or 5 for a full week of training before the friendly. (Nov. 5 marks the MLS Cup final).
Canada has never played Bahrain before. Bahrain failed to advance out of the second round of Asian World Cup qualifying, finishing third at 4-1-3 in a group behind leader Iran and Iraq.
Bahrain is coached by former Portuguese international Helio Sousa.
The Canadians finished atop the CONCACAF qualifying final round robin, compiling an impressive 14-2-4 record across three rounds en route to Qatar.
It’s the Canadian men’s first trip to the World Cup since 1986.