Alistair Johnston on Celtic’s rise and the chance to face Messi this summer

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<p><figcaption class=Celtic fullback Alistair Johnston (Image: SNS)

THE Tony Macaroni Arena may sound like something out of a spaghetti western, but it’s a long way from Texas to Almondvale.

For Alistair Johnston, the Celtic full-back who will be hoping to help his side return to the top of the Premiership when they take on Livingston in today’s lunchtime kick-off, it was a long journey west during last week’s international break.

Johnston joined his Canadian teammates in the Lone Star State for their Nations League play-off match against Trinidad and Tobago. It was the last chance for both countries in their respective attempts to gain entry to the Copa America finals this summer. And Johnston and his compatriots kicked open those swinging saloon doors with a 2-0 win at Toyota Stadium in Frisco.

The Herald: Alistair Johnston on duty in Canada

The Herald: Alistair Johnston on duty in Canada

Alistair Johnston in service in Canada (Image: Getty)

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Canada, hosting alongside North American neighbors the United States for the next World Cup, will now be involved in a hat-trick of consecutive major finals this decade and Johnston is hopeful his national team will make it a good habit to to perform in the grand finals. podium, with their qualification for Qatar ’22 only the second time they have reached the global showpiece in its history.

So, will Canada quietly ride off into the sunset on June 20 when the US-hosted finals begin? No chance. Mauro Biello’s side have only been given the honor of starting the tournament at the gigantic Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, against the current holders: Lionel Messi-led world champions Argentina. And Johnston knows that when the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner plays, he’s the only sheriff in town.

“It is exciting. In the first game we have Argentina, which will be good,” Johnston said with Pat Garrett enthusiasm after finally getting his hands on Billy the Kid. “Messi? I hope he stays on the other side of the pitch, but it will be exciting going to the Copa America.

The Herald: Lionel Messi, captain of Inter Miami and ArgentinaThe Herald: Lionel Messi, captain of Inter Miami and Argentina

The Herald: Lionel Messi, captain of Inter Miami and Argentina

Inter Miami and Argentina captain Lionel Messi (Image: Getty)

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“Yes, it is the opening match, the opening ceremony, so I think they expect Messi to put on a show. That’s why they put it in first. So yes, it is my job as a defender to hopefully calm that down, but again we are ready for the 80,000 screaming his name.

“I’ve seen it in MLS how mental it is there and I think it will be no different in Atlanta.

“I’ve never played against [Messi] before, but I have a few friends who have and they say it’s a delight! He looks like he’s just walking around, so you turn your head for a moment, you lose the ball, turn your head back and he’s gone!

“That entire Argentina team is extremely talented – you can’t win a World Cup with just one player. That will be a test to open the tournament. Before that we have a few friendly matches, we announced that we will play in the Netherlands. Again, solid team, I watched the Scotland game, I thought Scotland played well, but that’s a team that can punish you for any mistakes. It will be an exciting summer, another busy summer, but that is now the football calendar.”

However, it is not just Messi that Johnston has to worry about. After draws against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco at the 2022 World Cup, Johnston does not expect a revival in Group A this summer.

“In our group we have Chile, Peru and Argentina and even though it is in America, it will be 99 percent full of Messi jerseys – so that will be nice,” he said with a rueful grin. “But we are now somewhat used to that with the national team there.

“Those countries are incredible, their fan base travels so well and there is such a large population base in America. It will be a cool and exciting tournament to participate in.

“Looking at our player pool, we should qualify for such tournaments. We should now be among the top three teams in our region every year. We have that feeling too, but we have to support it, so it’s exciting to see this build on the last World Cup.

“It’s a great head start, we’re hosting the 2026 World Cup and there’s nothing that really prepares you for tournament football, no matter how many friendlies you play, like any other major tournament.
It is important to participate in these types of tournaments. It is another great opportunity to take another step forward with our young group that will organize a World Cup in a few years.”

Fortunately for Johnston, who was previously an ice hockey player in his home country before starting his soccer career in the MLS with Nashville Soccer Club in 2020, the Copa America won’t be his first rodeo. In the same month that the 25-year-old made his World Cup debut in Qatar in December 2022, Celtic announced that they would sign the relatively unknown number from CF Montreal in his home country immediately after the tournament.

And having showcased his now renowned spirited playing style against the likes of Belgian Eden Hazard and Croatian Ivan Perisic, the robust defender arrived at Parkhead ready to take over at right-back.

The Herald: Alistair Johnston challenges Eden HazardThe Herald: Alistair Johnston challenges Eden Hazard

The Herald: Alistair Johnston challenges Eden Hazard

Alistair Johnston challenges Eden Hazard (Image: Getty)

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There is no doubt he has done that, with his enthusiasm for the challenge and ruthless attitude making him an instant hit with Celtic supporters. He helped the club reach the treble last season before featuring in the Champions League this season. .

And that increased fame in Glasgow has come with much more recognition when the jovial Canadian is out and about in the city. And that’s not where the differences between Scotland’s largest city and its hometown end.

Asked if he is more recognized in Scotland than at home, Johnston said: “Definitely. It’s funny because when I first got here late, one of our team administrators asked if it was similar to Toronto.

“I remember flying in and I’m not sure there’s a building over five stories here. It’s a little different. I thought, I’m not sure you know how big Toronto is.

“He said he had been there as a child, so I told him he might want to go back if he makes a statement like that!

“It’s definitely a different feeling there. Even the big hockey players can get around Toronto quite easily. Glasgow is a completely different beast, it’s a fishbowl. You can have the cap on, the big jacket on and it’s hilarious because it’s a grandma pointing me out.

“I’m like, ‘How do you even know?’ The passion runs very deep here and it is such a football-driven and specifically football-mad country and city. It’s very different from Toronto.”

The Herald: Celtic defender Alistair Johnston arrives at Celtic ParkThe Herald: Celtic defender Alistair Johnston arrives at Celtic Park

The Herald: Celtic defender Alistair Johnston arrives at Celtic Park

Celtic defender Alistair Johnston arrives at Celtic Park (Image: SNS)

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Johnston could be advised to dig out that custom-made face mask he wore briefly after suffering a facial fracture earlier this season if he wants to avoid any more handbags with Ibrox-leaning septuagenarians at dawn, but with the pressure of the Old Firm fishbowl is intense, he insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Yes, it takes a lot out of you mentally because like when I’m at home in Toronto, you can go for a walk and no one will really bother you – you can be completely in Canada and that’s the case!” he said.

“Here you are hiding, you have a cap and glasses on and yet it is constant. Things like that take some getting used to and can be a bit mentally exhausting.

“That’s why I have so much appreciation for the guys who have been doing this for ten years and continue to live here even after their retirement. They will be recognized throughout their lives.

“It’s difficult to pay attention all the time, but as a footballer that’s what you want. You want to be in the spotlight and feel like what you do matters. That is especially important in this city.”

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