Thrilled fans kick up a fuss as Canada steps onto World Cup stage Midday, midweek opening match in global event packs Exchange pub, Belgian Club

It’s 11:48 a.m. — a little more than an hour before Canada opens its 2022 World Cup against second-ranked Belgium.

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It’s 11:48 a.m. — a little more than an hour before Canada opens its 2022 World Cup against second-ranked Belgium.

The streets of Winnipeg’s Exchange District are about as calm as they can be at midday on Wednesday, but there is a palpable buzz in the air as supporters make their way toward the King’s Head Pub.

“You ready?” a man wearing a Canada Soccer scarf asks a cigarette smoker just outside the door before going inside.

“Absolutely,” the puffer replies with a smile.

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Dallas Barr watches the World Cup match between Belgium and Canada at the King's Head.

There’s calm before the storm inside; about 30 people on the restaurant’s two levels have already assumed their viewing positions. Owner Chris Graves says 250 seats are reserved and that he expects upwards of another 75 walk-ins to take in Canada’s first match in the global event since 1986.

By 12:17, the energy is growing along with the size of the crowd.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited,” says Canadian supporter Tayler Yuel. “Like, it was crazy. I have been on the verge of tears all morning out of pure excitement. I know that the second that I watch the players during the national anthem if one of them sheds a tear, I’m waterworks the whole time. That’s all that’s coming out of me.

“It’s been crazy. It’s hard to support a team that doesn’t have success and a lot of people don’t cheer for Canada as their first team cause we’ve never had this in a lot of people’s lifetimes. It’s just crazy. I don’t know how to say it.”

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Robert Michiels and his one-year-old niece, Georgette Michiels, watch the match.

The 27-year-old is sporting a black Canada soccer T-shirt and a red zip-up hoodie, and has taken it upon herself to decorate the area she’ll be occupying during the historic match, hanging a string of mini-pennants that read “Go Canada Go.” She took the day off work, as she has many times throughout the past three years when Canada has played in a crucial match.

While it’s the first time she’ll watch her home country in the World Cup, Yuel, like many others in the Winnipeg Chapter of The Voyageurs, a Canadian soccer support group that spans the country, has backed the team throughout its qualifying run in the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football league.

Just as the televised pregame show pans to the Canadian players warming up for the first time about 40 minutes before the opening kick, the King’s Head upper level erupts in a loud roar while fans continue to pack the King Street pub.

“People like Tayler and myself came on just when there was this glimmer of hope for the first time,” said fellow Voyageur Mike Friesen. “Alphonso Davies and when professional soccer finally came to Winnipeg with Valour FC. Now there’s a new generation of soccer fans to go with the new generation of soccer players.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Nicolas Gravel watches the World Cup match between Belgium and Canada at the King's Head.

“It’s the biggest event in the world. There’s no other way to say it.”

“And now Canada gets to finally be on that stage, for the biggest sporting event in the entire world,” Yuel adds.

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life,” another man interjected.

Meanwhile, at the Belgian Club, a seven-minute drive from the Exchange District over the Provencher bridge, there’s a touch of tension hanging over the roughly 40 attendees just 10 minutes before the opening kick. While some wear Canada gear, most — as would be expected — are Belgium supporters.

Robert Michiels is trying to resolve an inner conflict; a Belgium scarf is draped over his left shoulder and a Canada scarf is on his right.

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Jean-Marie Declercq has called Winnipeg home since 1968, but his gold jersey leaves no doubt which side he supports.

“I’m a Canada fan, first off,” he explains. “But I’m also a Belgium fan before from when Canada didn’t make the World Cup. All my family comes from Belgium.”

His mom, born in Belgium, moved to Winnipeg and met his father, whose parents were also born in Belgium.

“For the past few World Cups, it was always Belgium, Belgium, Belgium — or the Netherlands. But this one I’m conflicted, because it’s Canada. You know, I used to play soccer. It’s conflicting. I do want Canada to do well,” says Michiels, who is with his girlfriend and a few of their friends.

Michiels, who says he’ll cheer both ways but admits he’ll celebrate a little louder when Canada scores, says he never expected to have to decide between the two countries in a soccer match.

“No. It was quite surprising and it feels good to have that,” he says.

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Robert Michiels and his partner, Janelle Whitley. Michiels, says he’ll cheer both ways but admits he’ll celebrate a little louder when Canada scores.

I think (Canada will) do quite well. They made it to the top of Concacaf. Even the Belgium manager praises Canada for making it to the top of their qualifying group, and Belgium being No. 2 in the world, it feels good — the respect they see in our players — it feels good.”

Jean-Marie Declercq has called Winnipeg home since 1968, but his gold jersey leaves no doubt which side he supports.

“I root for Belgium,” he says. “That’s where it stops. It doesn’t matter how you look at it, right now they’re the second-best team in the world. Last World Cup they came in third, but they’re the best team there is.

“ I never thought (Canada) would get anywhere. But kudos to them that they got that far.”

Regardless of the colour they wear, there is a legitimate feeling among most fans that Canada has a shot to pull off the upset, after watching heavy underdog Saudi Arabia knock off Argentina, a favourite to win it all, 2-1 on Tuesday, and Spain laying a 7-0 beatdown on Costa Rica earlier in the day.

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Brad Beghetto (left), Jim Hoger, and Mike Berney watch the World Cup match at the Belgium Club.

The opening matches proved that nothing was guaranteed and fans should expect a spirited affair on this afternoon.

“It always flickers a little,” Declercq says of his excitement level. “It’s always fun to watch, no matter the outcome”

Shortly after, a cheer erupts from the front row of Canadian fans as Alphonso Davies is awarded a penalty kick. All supporters collectively moved closer to the edge of their seats as the single biggest moment in the last three-plus decades of Canadian soccer history was placed on the foot of one of the country’s best players.

A superb save from the Belgian keeper drew Belgian fans to their feet and left Canadian fans holding their hands above their heads in disbelief.

Canada is the dominant side during a spirited first half, but Belgium scores the match’s lone goal in the 44th minute. Canada’s first performance is a disappointing loss. Croatia is up next Sunday.

jfreysam@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam
Reporter

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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