Canada had just lost the first men’s World Cup match they had played in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a post-game huddle. “I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and eff Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, attempting to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

His words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approaches. Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a full-page photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the balls as well?”

Croatian tabloids seem quite unforgiving towards Herdman, putting him on the cover despite Dalić’s claim that ‘Croatia will speak on the pitch’.

“You have the mouth (tongue)”, this one says, next to the, well, stripped Herdman. “But do you have the balls as well?” pic.twitter.com/Z7b4Ncdomk

— Juraj Vrdoljak (@JurajVrdoljak) November 25, 2022

“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” Herdman said the following day. “It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.

Canada have played only four men’s World Cup games in their history and are still searching for their first goal. The Canadians had 21 shots to Belgium’s nine on Wednesday but conceded a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass on a counter. Alphonso Davies had had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty was saved by Thibaut Courtois.

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“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said. “I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”

The captain, Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current squad alive when Canada lost all three games at the 1986 World Cup, could make his 100th international appearance on Sunday – Julian de Guzman is second with 89. The midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the 2018 World Cup runners-up. “We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”

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