Celtic's Alistair Johnston braced for Leo Messi test and compares Canada to Glasgow - 'it’s a grandma who’s pointing me out'

Going home for international duty is refreshing in more ways than one for full-back

Lionel Messi must be a dream to watch unless you’re meant to be marking him. Alistair Johnston will find out shortly just how tough a job that actually is.

The Celtic defender enjoyed a productive international break, helping Canada defeat Trinidad & Tobago in a playoff to book their place at this summer’s Copa America in the United States. Placed in a South American-flavoured group that also includes Peru and Chile, Canada will enjoy the honour of opening the tournament on June 20 by going up against Argentina. That match takes place just four days shy of Messi’s 37th birthday and Johnston reckons it’s no coincidence that the World Cup winners have been asked to kick things off. Catching Messi in the flesh these days is a bit like securing tickets for a Rolling Stones gig – you just never know when it could be the last time.

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Johnston, though, won’t have the luxury of standing gawping at the little magician as 80,000 fans in Atlanta chant his name and expect to be entertained. He and his fellow defenders need to come up with a way of stopping the pint-sized prince who has been lighting up the MLS with Inter Miami. “It’s exciting to have qualified and in the first match we’ve got Argentina which will be good,” says Johnston. “I hope Messi stays on the other side of the pitch!

Celtic's Alistair Johnston recently played for Canada against Trinidad and Tobago.Celtic's Alistair Johnston recently played for Canada against Trinidad and Tobago.
Celtic's Alistair Johnston recently played for Canada against Trinidad and Tobago.

“Even though it’s in America it will be 99 percent full with Messi jerseys so that’ll be fun but we’re kind of used to that now with the national team over there. It is the opening game, the opening ceremony, so I think they are expecting Messi to put on a show which is why they have put it on as the first one. So, yeah, it is my job as a defender to hopefully quieten that down but we are ready for the 80,000 screaming his name.

“I have seen in the MLS how mental it is over there and I think it will be no different in Atlanta. I’ve never played against him before but I have a couple of friends who have and they say he is a joy. He looks like he is just walking about so you just turn your head for one second. You lose the ball and turn your head back and he is gone! But that whole Argentinian team is extremely talented – you don’t win a World Cup with just one player.”

Canada also featured at that World Cup in Qatar and will co-host the next edition in 2026. Qualifying for the Copa America has also helped raise the profile of a sport that contends with ice hockey, basketball, grid iron and baseball for a nation’s affections but Johnston admits it’s not always been easy. “Basketball has really risen over the past couple of years, especially with the Toronto Raptors winning the championship a couple of years ago,” he offers “But it’s a funny one. It’s such a diverse country where football is big and I actually think it’s the most played sport in the country in terms of numbers. But you don’t have a massive league in your backyard and you’ve not had international success, especially in our men’s programme, like our women’s programme has. The fanfare is more Premier League-driven, for example, rather than national league driven.

“I think we’re slowly starting to turn some heads but again Canada is funny – a lot of people will cheer for Italy first then Canada second. We want to change that. In Scotland you’d never see that, where you’re cheering from where your grandparents are from rather than where you were born and raised. But we understand that so it’s definitely a barrier we have to cross.”

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi will likely come up against Johnston in the summer.Argentina's forward Lionel Messi will likely come up against Johnston in the summer.
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi will likely come up against Johnston in the summer.

Johnston admits he could walk through downtown Toronto in full national team gear and not be noticed, a situation far removed from Glasgow where stepping into public as a Celtic or Rangers player ought to come with a health warning. “It’s definitely a different feel there,” he confirms. “Even the big hockey players can get around Toronto pretty easily. Glasgow is a different beast altogether, it’s a fish bowl.

“You can have the cap on, the big jacket on and it’s hilarious because it’s a grandma who’s pointing me out. I’m like ‘how do you even know?’ The passion runs very deep here and it’s such a football-driven, football-mad country and city specifically. It’s very different from Toronto. That is why I have such appreciation for the guys who have been doing that for a decade. Even after they retire they are going to live here. They will be getting recognised their entire lives. Constantly having the eyes on you is difficult but as a footballer that is what you want. You want to be in the limelight and feel what you are doing matters. Definitely in this city it is very important.”

Johnston will be carried around the east end of Glasgow like a king if he and his Celtic team-mates can finish this season as champions once again. Defeating Livingston this afternoon would be another step in the right direction and the right-back would love nothing more than heading off to the United States for his date with Messi with another domestic medal or two in his pocket.

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“Ideally you have lifted the title before that and you are going into it fully confident,” he confirms. “You just want positive vibes going into it. It is a massive opportunity for us as a nation to go and show we belong. It’s a great chance to take another step forward with our young group hosting a World Cup in a couple of years. I’m excited and looking forward to it.”



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