Naivety cost John Herdman and Canada dear in the World Cup’s Group of Eff

The softly spoken Fifa translator paused for a moment. But she held her nerve. “In the end,” she said as she relayed man-of-the-match Andrej Kramaric’s words, “Croatia demonstrated who eff’d whom.”

Sunday night at the Khalifa Stadium was a cruel, chastening one for Canada. The ignominy didn’t end at the final whistle. Kramaric, whose two goals came in an emphatic 4-1 Canadian defeat, was joined by his manager Zlatko Dalic at the post-match top table where the final words, no matter which language you translate them into, were all Croatian.

The defeat meant Canada were the second team eliminated from Qatar 2022 but, technically, the first sent home, seeing as the pitiful hosts already are home. From the most moral victory in defeat to Belgium and then those fateful fighting words on Wednesday to it all being over by Sunday, it was a hell of comedown.

What part did Herdman’s “Eff Croatia” comments play in it all? Enough. Enough of a part for them to account for at least 20%, maybe 25%, of the combined questions from the floor after the Croatia game. But zoom out and look at the four days as a whole and there is, if not a pattern, then a patch. A sticky patch of naivety off and then on the field that brought Canada’s return to the men’s World Cup to such a screeching halt.

As largely harmless as they were, Herdman’s words did not help Canada. Why? Because they clearly helped Croatia. And the 2018 World Cup finalists, already operating on a higher plane than Concacaf’s top qualifiers, definitely didn’t need a leg up. Of all the teams to provide some bulletin-board motivation to, a gnarled veteran Croatian core coming off a dispiriting opening stalemate with Morocco is not one of them. Even to observe Kramaric and Dalic without the help of a translator told you as much. It was written on their faces.

Herdman said he didn’t regret his words and then intimated that he did. He was processing it all in real time and, as Wednesday had taught him, that can be risky.

“No, not at all,” he replied when asked if he wished he hadn’t used the f-word. “As I keep saying, we’re here to push as far as we can. We’re here to change the mentality of the group. I could have been a bit more composed coming out of the huddle. That’s my learning. I’ll take that on the chin.”

If the comments and the ensuing Croatian tabloid mockery had helped turn an already chaotic Group F into Group Eff, it was Herdman’s job to get it all back on an even keel. That was something Canada never had Sunday at Khalifa Stadium. They roared out of the gates and Alphonso Davies created personal and national history with the fastest goal of this World Cup and the Canadian men’s first in any edition. For the next 20 minutes they searched for a second. But they never settled. So Croatia did. And naivety cost Herdman, and Canada, a second time.

Captain Atiba Hutchison is beloved, an older brother to the other 25 players here. He was winning his 100th cap a couple of months before his 40th birthday. But as Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic got a grip and then ran rampant through the middle, Hutchinson was bypassed and bullied. Porto’s Stephen Eustaquio was hobbled by injury but inexplicably both were left in to flail and inevitably Croatia turned it all around.

Hutchinson was partially or prominently at fault for three Croatian goals yet Herdman argued that his captain was “next level” before admitting soon after that he could have made changes sooner.

“I think there are small margins,” he said. “For me it’s trying to get those tactical shifts in earlier. In that first half there was a moment where Modric and Brozovic had started to pick apart our midfield two and we needed a tactical shift a little bit quicker and maybe needed the subs a bit quicker. It might have made the difference. I’ve got to reflect. I’m a bit raw at the moment.”

When he did belatedly make the changes, Herdman brought in rising star Ismaël Koné and veteran Jonathan Osorio. A decade separates the two players but what ties them is that neither has ever played outside MLS. And here they were being sent into the white heat of a decisive World Cup game to tame a Croatian midfield built from Real Madrid, Chelsea and Internazionale. It’s the kind of moment to pause and realise how far Canada have come – and how far they still have to go.

In that wider context, Herdman was of course right to say he was “proud of what they achieved … we came here to make history.” Davies’ storming header was historic, an instant Canadian heritage moment. But zoom in again and it counted for little.

The team weren’t tipped by many to make it out of a group that was expected – and has proven to be – one of the least predictable and most competitive here. But for it to all be over before the final group game stings. Herdman will regroup for Morocco on Thursday and hope his side can have a say in how the group shakes out. But not too loud of a say. That lesson has been learned.