In many ways, it was the most captivating of all the surprises the past few days have delivered here.
Not the score line, which maintains Belgium’s record as one of the most clinical performances in the World Cup group stage of the last 12 years.
But in the exquisite, sometimes breathtaking football of a Canadian team determined to make up for lost years.
Perhaps the Canadian spirit was to be expected, given that the ethos of this team was forged in Leeds.
Michy Batshuayi ruined the Canadian party with a lethal half-volley that became the winner
Michy Batshuayi (CR) celebrates with Yannick Carrasco (CR), Alex Witsel (CL) and Eden Hazard (L) after his superb strike to open the scoring against Canada at Al Rayyan on Wednesday night
Canadian Alphonso Davies was lucky enough to score the country’s first World Cup goal but missed PK
Manager John Herdman coached four times a week as a student in the city, setting up an offshoot of the city’s Brazilian football schools, where energy was the watchword.
It was also the overwhelming quality of his Canada team, when they returned to this stage for the first time in 36 years.
Belgium (3-4-2-1) Courtois 8, Dendoncker 5.5, Alderweireld 6, Vertonghen 6.5; Castagne 5, Tielemans 5 (Onana 45 6.5), Witsel 6, Carrasco 4 (Meunier 45 6); De Bruyne 6.5, E Hazard 5.5 (Trossard 62 6); Batshuayi 6.5
Canada (3-4-2-1) Borjan 6; Johnston 6, Vitoria 7, Miller 6.5; Hoilett 7.5 (Larin 58 6), Hutchinson 6.5 (Kone 6), Eustaquio 7.5, Laryea 7; Buchanan 6.5, Davies 8.5; David 5.5
Arbitrator: Janny Sikazwe (Zambia) 7
Belgium, who had won seven World Cup group stage matches in a row before this tournament and hadn’t lost since 1994, were crushed by a side determined to take their lives.
Their athleticism was dizzying to watch: one of the most refreshing 45 minutes of football in this World Cup, powered by the jumps and slalom runs of Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett. Stephen Eustaquio was the technician, chaining the company.
The huge moment came early, 10 minutes later, when Tajon Buchanan’s half-volley was ruled by VAR officials to have hit Yannick Carrasco on the arm and Canada were awarded a penalty.
Davies didn’t strike well and Thibaut Courtois dove to his right to save his fifth of nine penalties he faced in 2022.
If Davies was affected by this, he certainly didn’t show it. He performed in dancing shoes, running into the box and leaving Youri Tielemans on the seat of his pants.
Canada may not have the most distinctive choral repertoires – “Ooh, ah Canada” to the tune of “We are stay up” – but they had the same cheery support that Wales received from same sections of seats here earlier this week.
Although he may not have been at his best, Kevin De Bruyne still caused problems in Canada
While it may not have been a vintage performance, Belgium’s win puts them in pole position
Eden Hazard showed flashes of what he could do during the month-long Qatar tournament
Carrasco, who was gutted by the Canadian pace, and Tielemans, who struggled, failed to qualify for the second half, although by the time the break came the Belgian had a lead that only the most fervent of their countrymen would have thought justified.
It was hardly a goal in Roberto Martinez’s mold – a bundle ball cleaving the centre-backs that the otherwise ineffectual Michy Batshuayi sent home mid-volley.
This is what a collective of 925 selections in the team buys you. Goalkeeper Milan Borjan should have done better.
The question for the Belgian nation is whether that kind of experience – a once golden generation coming together for one last shot at glory – equates to an aging and inadequate team.
Davies collapsed into a crouched position, exasperated by the result belying a brilliant performance
Martinez brushed off the notion that he failed to get a new band through, though it was a stark exposition of the damage an exuberant youth can do to an aging band.
There were no answers to the questions posed by the wingers. Davies, bottom right, was unplayable – humiliating this stellar opposition.
Kevin De Bruyne briefly entered life, looking to find Eden Hazard. Neither star set the house on fire.
Canada was expected to wither in the second half, although that didn’t happen.
Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was mobbed by his teammates after his penalty save
The world-class shooter quickly moved to his left to rob Davies of a place in history
As they continued to press and threaten, Eustaquio lifted a ball from Jonathan David at the far post, only to have his header fall just wide.
And when De Bruyne seized on an error to accelerate into space down the right and cross for Batshuayi, right-back Richie Laryea launched into an extraordinary recovery challenge. He screamed into the night sky.
Canada will reflect on the need to finish much better. Belgium will think they need something monumentally better if they want to spend three weeks here.
Atiba Hutchinson (R), 39, put in a mature performance in the Canadian midfield
Canada’s players gathered in an inner circle after the 1-0 loss to Belgium
To rewatch all the action from the World Cup Group F clash between Belgium and Canada, scroll down.