In many ways, 2021 was a breakout year for Canadian soccer.
The women’s team struck gold at the Tokyo Olympics, while the men’s side put the rest of CONCACAF on notice during the World Cup qualifiers.
Internationally, this past year gave us a number of surprises, including Italy being crowned European champions, and Chelsea winning its second UEFA Champions League title.
What will next year bring? Here are five bold predictions for world soccer in 2022:
1. Canada advances to the round of 16 at the World Cup
The Canadian men’s team’s only previous World Cup appearance came in 1986 in Mexico, when it bowed out in the group stage after suffering three consecutive shutout losses. Ever since, Canada hasn’t come close to qualifying for the biggest sporting event on the planet. That will change next year, as Canada will punch its ticket for the 2022 World Cup.
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But the Reds won’t just be spectators in Qatar, or simply be satisfied to be back at the World Cup for the first time in 36 years. Buoyed by a talented generation of young attacking players, such as Alphonso Davies, coach John Herdman’s side will punch well above their weight and do two things that the Canadian team couldn’t in Mexico back in 1986: Score a goal and win a game. Not only that, Canada will emerge from its first-round group and move on to the round of 16.
“The flair and fearlessness, and with guys like (Alphonso) Davies, (Jonathan) David and (Tajon) Buchanan, we’ve never had a team this talented and dangerous,” said Bob Lenarduzzi, who was a member of Canada’s 1986 World Cup team.
2. Toronto lands an NWSL expansion franchise
The National Women’s Soccer League is experiencing a tremendous growth period at the moment. Racing Louisville made its debut as the NWSL’s 10th club in 2021, and the league is set to add two more teams next year when Los Angeles and San Diego will begin play.
A number of American cities are currently looking to join the fray as expansion franchises, but 2022 will be the year that the NWSL heads north and announces its first Canadian club.
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Fan interest in the women’s game has never been higher in this country in the aftermath of Canada’s gold medal victory at the Tokyo Olympics. Several members of the Canadian team, including captain Christine Sinclair (who plays for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL) have publicly called for the league to add a Canadian club, while Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis is firmly committed to helping the country land its first expansion franchise.
“I’m willing to say I’ll work my butt off to get an NWSL team in Canada,” Bontis said after his election win last November.
3. Croatia wins the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar
After finishing third at the 1998 World Cup in France, Croatia went through a dry spell as it made group stage exits in its next three tournament appearances, and didn’t even qualify in 2010.
But the Croatians reasserted themselves at the 2018 World Cup in Russia by finishing runners-up to France, and followed that up with a solid round-of-16 showing at Euro 2020 when it lost a heartbreaker to Spain in extra time.
In 2022, Croatia will finally do well by winning the World Cup. Coach Zlatko Dalić’s side is coming off a sensational qualifying campaign in which they won seven of 10 games (with only one loss) and sported one of the best defensive records (just four goals against).
What’s more, they have the mercurial Luka Modric still pulling the creative strings in midfield. At age 36, Modric is playing some of the best soccer of his career, but the 2022 World Cup likely represents his last chance to win something with his national team. The Real Madrid star will continue to turn back the clock and lead his country to glory in Qatar.
4. Jonathan David makes a transfer move to FC Barcelona
At 21 years old, Jonathan David has the world at his feet. The product of Ottawa has become one of the hottest young prospects in the world ever since his transfer move from Belgian club Gent to French side Lille OSC in the summer of 2020.
The Canadian forward has thrived in France by scoring at a steady rate, and guiding Lille a league title last season. He has also played a starring role in helping Lille qualify for the round of 16 in this season’s UEFA Champions League.
Top clubs from across Europe have taken notice of David’s bristling form for Lille and are queuing up to table a transfer offer next summer, including a host of English teams that have already been linked to the Canadian.
But it will be FC Barcelona who ends up landing David, who leads the French league in scoring with 11 goals. The Spanish giants have fallen on hard times of late, as they exited this season’s Champions League in the group stage and sit seventh in the Spanish league table, a full 15 points behind leaders and bitter rivals Real Madrid.
Barcelona is in desperate need of a roster overhaul, especially in attack, as it has been lost up front since Lionel Messi’s departure, while Sergio Aguero recently announced his retirement at age 33 due to heart problems. The blaugrana will turn to David and table a massive transfer offer to Lille in hopes that the Canadian can help revitalize their failing fortunes.
5. Ajax wins the UEFA Champions League
Bayern Munich and Liverpool were among the three teams that went a perfect 6-0 in the group stage of the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering their stature as two of the biggest clubs in the world.
But would it surprise you to learn that the third team to sport a perfect record in the group stage was Ajax? The modest Dutch club, which won the last of its four Champions League titles in 1995, was positively sensational in the group stage, winning all six of its games by a combined 20-5 score line.
Ajax also boasts the top scorer in this season’s tournament, as previously unheralded Ivory Coast striker Sébastien Haller exploded for 10 goals and became only the second player in Champions League history (Cristiano Ronaldo was the other) to score in all six matches of a single group stage.
Ajax will face Benfica in the round of 16, and it’s fair to assume the Dutch will brush aside their Portuguese opponents. After that, the Amsterdamers will continue to ride their incredible wave of momentum and claim their first European title in 27 years.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.