THE Tony Macaroni Arena might 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 hope to help his side return to the cinch Premiership summit when they take on Livingston in today’s lunchtime kick-off, it was a long voyage out west during last week’s international break.

Johnston joined his Canada team-mates in the Lone Star State for their Nations League play-off match against Trinidad and Tobago. It was the last-chance saloon for both nations in their respective bids to gain entry to the Copa America finals this summer. And Johnston and his fellow countrymen kicked those swinging saloon doors open with a 2-0 victory at the Toyota Stadium in Frisco.

The Herald: Alistair Johnston on Canada dutyAlistair Johnston on Canada duty (Image: Getty)

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Canada, as joint hosts with North American neighbours 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 a good habit of performing on the major stage, with their qualification for Qatar ’22 just the second time they have reached the global showpiece in its history.

So, will Canada ride quietly into the sunset come June 20 when the USA-held finals commence? Not a chance. Mauro Biello’s side have only been bestowed with the honour of kicking off the tournament at the gargantuan Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against the current holders: Lionel Messi-led world champions Argentina. And Johnston knows when the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner is playing, he’s the only sheriff in town.

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

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

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“Yes, it is the opening game, the opening ceremony, so I think they are expecting Messi to put on a show. So, that is why they have put it on as the first one. So yeah it is my job as a defender to hopefully quiet that down but again we are ready for the 80,000 screaming his name. 

“I have seen it in the MLS with how mental it is over there and I think it will be no different over in Atlanta. 

“I have never played against [Messi] 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 turn your head back and he is gone!

“That whole Argentinian team is extremely talented – you don’t win a World Cup with just one player. That will be test to open up the tournament. We have a couple of friendlies before that, we have announced we are going to play in the Netherlands. Again, solid team, I watched the Scotland game, I thought Scotland played well but that is a team who can punish you for any mistakes. It will be an exciting summer, another busy summer but that is the footballing calendar now.”

It’s not just Messi Johnston has to worry about, though. Having been drawn against Belgium, Croatia and Morocco at the World Cup in 2022, Johnston is expecting no let-up in Group A this summer.

“In our group we have Chile, Peru and Argentina and, even though it’s in America, it will be 99-per-cent full with Messi jerseys – so that’ll be fun,” he said with a rueful grin. “But we’re kind of used to that now with the national team over there.

“Those countries are unbelievable, their fan base travels so well and there’s such a big population base in America. It’ll be cool and an exciting tournament to be a part of.

“When we look at our player pool, we should be qualifying for tournaments like that. We should be one of the top three teams out of our region every year now. We feel that way but we need to back it up so it’s exciting to get this to build on that past World Cup.

“It’s a great lead in, 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 another major tournament.
It’s important to be in tournaments like this. Again it’s a great chance to take another step forward with our young group hosting a World Cup in a couple of years.”

Luckily for Johnston, who was previously an ice hockey player in his homeland before starting out his football career in MLS with Nashville Soccer Club in 2020, the Copa America won’t be his first rodeo. During the same month the 25-year-old made his World Cup debut in Qatar in December 2022, Celtic announced they were signing the relatively unknown quantity from CF Montreal in his homeland immediately after the tournament.

And after showcasing his now renowned feisty playing style against the likes of Belgium’s Eden Hazard and Croatia’s Ivan Perisic, the robust defender arrived at Parkhead ready to make the right-back berth his own.

The Herald: Alistair Johnston challenges Eden HazardAlistair Johnston challenges Eden Hazard (Image: Getty)

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There is no doubt he has done that, with his fervour in the challenge and ruthless attitude making him an instant hit with the Celtic supporters as he has gone on to help the club clinch the treble last season before turning out in the Champions League this term.

And that increased notoriety in Glasgow has come with a great deal more recognition when the jovial Canadian is out and about in the city. And that’s not where the differences between Scotland’s biggest city and his hometown end.

Asked if he is recognised more in Scotland than he is back home, Johnston replied: “For sure. It’s funny because when I first arrived here, late, one of our team admins asked if it was comparable to Toronto.

“I remember flying in and I’m not sure there’s a building above five storeys here. It’s a bit different - I was like, I’m not sure you actually know how big Toronto is.

“He said he went when he was a kid so I told him he might want to go back if he makes a statement like that!

“It’s definitely a different feel there. 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 and such a football mad country and city specifically. It’s very different to Toronto.”

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

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

“Yeah, it takes a lot out of you mentally because like when I am at home in Toronto you can go out for a walk and no-one is really going to bother you – you can be in full Canada gear and that is the case!” he said.

“Here you are hidden, you have a cap and glasses on and still it is constant. Stuff like that takes some getting used to and it can be a bit of mental drain. 

“That is why I have such appreciation for the guys who have been doing that for a decade and 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.”