When fans and pundits are asked who will be Canada’s most important player at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, most often the name Alphonso Davies is offered as the answer.
At 22, the Edmonton native is already a global superstar thanks to his exploits with German club Bayern Munich, where he established himself as one of the best left-backs in the world and became the first member of the Canadian men’s team to win the UEFA Champions League.
But think of the underrated Alistair Johnston, one of only two players to have played in all 14 of Canada’s games in the final round of their Concacaf World Cup qualifying campaign.
“[Johnston] he has a very high soccer IQ,” says former Canadian international Patrice Bernier. “He is very intelligent with the ball; a very smart player. He is never in phase, always calm. He’s the type of player that coaches love because he’s versatile. You could put him in any position on the field and he would be able to pull it off.
“It goes unnoticed because it is not flashy. You don’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, he’s fast,’ or you say, ‘Wow, he’s technically talented.’ No. He’s on the spot, he’s consistent, he never takes a wrong step. That’s what you notice about him.
Johnston, a 24-year-old from Vancouver, was “Mr. Reliable,” as the team traversed North and Central America during the playoffs, from Hamilton to San Pedro Sula and every point in between, recording more starts (11) and more minutes (1020) than anyone except forward Jonathan David. Whether in the brutal cold of Commonwealth Stadium against mighty Costa Rica or inside the venerable soccer cathedral that is Estadio Azteca against mighty Mexico, the CF Montreal defender was a constant presence for the men’s team as they punched their ticket to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Last week, Johnston started with a 2-1 win over Japan in Canada’s final warm-up game before the World Cup, setting a new team record by making his 28th consecutive appearance to surpass Hall of Famer Canadian Soccer Fame, Bruce Wilson. Johnston’s star is on the rise, and the general belief in the Canadian soccer community is that he will be the country’s next big export to one of Europe’s biggest clubs, possibly as soon as the tournament in Qatar wraps up next month.
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But before that, there’s the small matter of playing Belgium on Wednesday in Canada’s opening game of the World Cup. While Canada is back at the big ball after a 36-year absence, competing on this stage is second nature to the Belgians, who have made 13 previous appearances and reached the semifinals twice, including four years ago in Russia. .
Currently number 2 in the FIFA world rankings, Belgium is packed with attacking players of the highest caliber who are part of some of the biggest clubs in Europe and who regularly compete in the UEFA Champions League, most notably Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City. Then on Sunday, No. 41 Canada takes on 12th-ranked Croatia, led by the incomparable Luka Modric, rightly considered one of the best midfielders in the world and who guided his country to the World Cup final. 2018. The Dec. 1 match against world No. 22-ranked Morocco won’t be a walk in the park either.
For a defender, facing the best nations in Concacaf is one thing. It’s a completely different matter when you have to try to stop the likes of Belgium and Croatia. Yet for Johnston, who only made his Canada debut in 2021 and turned professional the year before, the daunting task of testing his defensive wits against some of the sport’s biggest stars is something he must embrace.
“You see what these top guys do week after week in the Champions League, you see what De Bruyne or Modric do, and it’s honestly amazing how they handle the ball. As a defender, this is a huge challenge and it’s something we appreciate,” says Johnston. “We want to test ourselves against the best forwards, the best midfielders in the world. We want to show that Canadians belong, that there are some good players here and that we are not just a hockey country. We have some stereotypes to break.”
Having recently completed his third season in MLS, Johnston carries himself with a quiet confidence and plays with a sense of fearlessness that is rare in such an inexperienced player. He has served him well when he has faced more experienced forwards at club level and on the international stage.
That sense of bravery is something he acquired out of necessity growing up, first in Montreal and then in Aurora, Ontario. It all turned into a competition between Johnston and his two brothers.
“I was the middle child, so you have to be fearless in your attitude and you are constantly fighting for everything. We are all athletes, all within two years of each other, so we grew up in a very competitive environment in everything we did. That made me fearless. I’ve always had that attitude of ‘I really don’t care who you are. Let’s go. Let’s get tangled up,’” says Johnston.
“I played hockey competitively in the winter and then soccer in the summer, and I was always known as a guy who loved to hit the body and hit guys. I’ve always liked the feeling of just leaving someone out, crazy as it sounds, and I’ve just brought that attitude to football. I love a good tackle to this day. nothing excites me more [than] if an opponent runs me into him or I run into him and it’s clean and the guy starts pushing me back. That’s something I just love.”
Johnston’s path to World Cup play is remarkable when you consider that just over three years ago he was playing for Vaughan Azzurri in the Ontario League 1. In January 2020, Nashville SC selected him 11th overall in the MLS SuperDraft out of Wake Forest University and he quickly became one of the best right-sided players in the league, either at fullback or wingback. His stock rose further after last year’s trade to CF Montreal, where he helped the team finish third in the overall MLS standings while he also played a key role in Canada’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
In the span of three years, he went from having a background in NCAA soccer and being part of a semi-pro team in North Toronto to playing in the biggest sporting events on the planet. His head is still spinning and he’s barely had time to reflect on the lightspeed journey he’s taken.
“Honestly, the last 24 months have been so hectic that there hasn’t been time to even sit down and think about it,” says Johnston. “I’ll probably have to wait until after the World Cup for me to think about it and reflect on the fact that I will have ticked a pretty big box that most players don’t get a chance to tick.”
Over the past few days, head coach John Herdman has put his team to the test in training sessions ahead of Wednesday’s game against Belgium, and if history is any indication, Johnston will be among the starting 11, most likely as part from a back three. alongside Steven Vitória and his CF Montreal teammate Kamal Miller.
Shortly after both teams walk through the tunnel and onto the pitch at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Johnston will make a childhood dream come true. But even beyond giving his first touch of the ball during a World Cup match, there is one moment that comes to mind more than any other:
“Hearing ‘O Canada,’ honestly, that’s the only moment I’ve ever thought about because singing our national anthem is so special to us. it’s something john [Herdman] has really emphasized. He wants us to be loud and proud when we sing it. And I want the other team to think, ‘Okay, this isn’t the same old Canada we’ve seen before.’ This is a different team. This is a team that plays for the pride of their country. That will be the most emotional moment for me. When we’re all there, I’ll be thinking, ‘Wow, we’re really doing this on the world stage and representing Canada on the biggest stage in sports.’ How awesome is this? That’s the moment I’m super excited about,” says Johnston.
“It is going to be special. All Canadians should definitely tune in early to the game to hear the national anthem. You don’t want to miss that. But at the same time it’s going to be difficult because a minute later the ball will be in play and it’s me against Kevin De Bruyne. It will try to leave those emotions on the sidelines.”