(Reuters) – Canada have a seemingly small task in Qatar to improve on their last appearance at the World Cup – score.

They have appeared at the finals once before, in 1986, when they crashed out at the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union and failed to find the net.

Canada’s return to the World Cup should be seen as a success in itself, a sign that the North American ice hockey powerhouse is no longer an outsider when it comes to men’s soccer.

Led by leading player Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich, Canada were the first CONCACAF country to book a spot in the 2022 finals. But despite their improvement, a knockout stage appearance in Qatar could prove out of reach.

Although they have evolved greatly since the 1986 debacle, Canada will face second-ranked Belgium, an ageing but still impressive team, in Group F and will also take on 2018 finalists Croatia plus Morocco, who were unbeaten in African qualifying.

Manager John Herdman said the World Cup in Qatar represents an opportunity to build a foundation for the 2026 edition, which Canada will host with the United States and Mexico.

“We were just happy to be in any of the groups because this World Cup is about going and enjoying it for our country,” Herdman told Canada’s TSN sports channel after the draw.

“For many of these men it will be their first experience. But I won’t limit their thinking to that… We can go there as underdogs, we can go there with no fear.”

Canada’s preparation for the tournament, however, was hit by a labour dispute in which players boycotted a friendly against Panama in June over a disagreement about World Cup prize money, among other issues.

That friendly was scheduled to replace a match against Iran, which was called off by Canada Soccer over widespread opposition from politicians and families of Canadians who died aboard a Ukrainian passenger plane shot down near Tehran in January 2020.

Canada, who have risen from 72nd in 2020 to 41st in the world rankings, comfortably beat hosts Qatar 2-0 in a September friendly but then lost 2-0 to 14th-ranked Uruguay.

They face Japan in their final warm-up on Nov. 17 in Dubai and meet Belgium in their World Cup opener six days later.

(Reporting by Gabirelle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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