DOHA: When Canada take to the pitch in their first World Cup match in 36 years on Wednesday, a country enamoured with ice hockey will showcase how much its men's soccer has evolved since they crashed out of the 1986 tournament winless and goalless.

Canada has produced an Olympic gold medal-winning women's team, but the men's side lagged behind their peers until manager John Herdman took the reins in 2018.

For Bob Lenarduzzi, who represented Canada at the 1986 World Cup, Canada's current level has been achieved thanks to the launch of a professional league in North America.

"The biggest difference and what got the ball rolling was the Americans being awarded the World Cup in 1994," Lenarduzzi told Reuters.

"One of the prerequisites was that a league needed to be started. The advent of MLS (Major League Soccer) has given way more opportunities for players to play."

Lenarduzzi, who played for English side Reading as a young professional, said Canadian men no longer necessarily needed to seek opportunities in Europe to develop their skills. The proper infrastructure and expertise are now available in Canada.

Paul Dolan, a goalkeeper in the 1986 World Cup squad, said the globalisation of the sport through the broadcast of Premier League matches and FIFA video games was helping soccer to infiltrate Canadian sport culture.

"That has made world soccer visible in Canada," he told Reuters. "It's made it more aspirational for young kids to maybe play soccer instead of hockey."

Canada are in a tough group with second-ranked Belgium as well as 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia and Morocco, who were unbeaten in African qualifying.

Canada have qualified automatically as one of the hosts of the 2026 tournament and will benefit from the expansion of the 32-nation tournament to 48.

But Lenarduzzi believes Canadian men's soccer is here to stay.

"I think I'm safe in predicting and saying that we're never not going to qualify for a World Cup again," he said. (Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber)