Underdogs to unemployed: Remembering Canada’s last appearance at the World Cup

Words by Matthew Crist Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 11, 2018

With Canada being named as joint hosts of the 2026 World Cup, a long lasting love affair between this vast nation and the greatest show on earth will finally be rekindled; reviving memories of their last visit to the tournament back in 1986, which still remains one of their finest achievements to-date.

A scruffy Igor Vrablic goal on a cold September day back in 1985 didn’t just seal a 2-1 victory for Canada over Honduras to win the CONCAF Championship, it also confirmed the country’s first ever visit to the World Cup finals, meaning they would at last be rubbing shoulders with the game’s elite after years of trying, though some three decades later they are still yet to return.

Things could have been so different for Canadian football in the 1980s, but a late bid to host the games, following the last minute withdrawal of Colombia due to financial difficulties, was shunned in favour of Mexico in an agreement which was widely regarded as being based on shady intentions rather than the good of the game.

How Mexico came to host the 1986 World Cup.

Had Canada been awarded the tournament it would no doubt have rejuvenated a sport which, though played and enjoyed by millions around the country, is often overshadowed by ice hockey and baseball, not to mention bolster its national league system while improving stadia and grass roots facilities for all.

The game had also suffered badly due to the collapse of the North American Soccer League (NASL) just months before the tournament began, this time a result of America’s failure to stage the tournament, and although often looked upon as something of a grazing ground for over-the-hill stars and has-beens, the league was also recognized as being a hotbed for young talent across North America at the time.

But despite six of their squad having no club to call their own, Canada had remarkably qualified for the competition, not as hosts, but in their own right even though many, rather harshly, saw them as one of the most disproportionate visitors the World Cup finals had ever welcomed.

An unfair accusation seeing as this was no footballing backwater, they had excelled at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles just two years earlier and were only beaten by Brazil in the quarter-finals on penalties. Coach Tony Waiters revelled in the role of underdog, which he used to his advantage whenever and wherever he could.

“We certainly weren’t the best team in the tournament by a long way, in terms of skill. But I’d say we were the fittest team,” explained Waiters who took charge of the team between 1981 and 1986.

“We had great commitment from the players. Bruce Wilson was the captain and he was a fitness fanatic. Bobby Lenarduzzi was a great trainer. Paul James was the best of all in terms of endurance and Randy Ragan had great commitment.”

Prior to the start of the tournament, Waiters took his side to a training camp in Colorado where he put them through a series of gruelling practice sessions, as he attempted to acclimatise them to the harsh conditions and punishing altitude they would experience in Mexico.

Fitness and stamina was one thing, but Waiters knew that all the training in the world couldn’t prepare his team for the harsh reality of competing against some of the greatest players on earth; none more so than France in their opening game of the finals at the Estadio Nou Camp, in León.

Reigning European champions, the French side were one of the pre-tournament favourites, not surprising really seeing as they boasted the likes of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse in their ranks and in the build-up to the game much of the talk was about just how many they would score against the tournament debutants.

Arriving at the stadium that day a number of locals turned out to welcome them, making hand signals to suggest what they thought the score would be, all in favour of the French and none siding with the Canadians. “They needed both hands for France. They put up eight fingers, and we didn’t have any, so everyone assumed we were going to get hammered,” recalled Canada defender Bobby Lenarduzzi.

As it turned out a late Jean-Pierre Papin strike was all that separated the two sides, with French coach Henri Michel fielding a number of awkward questions from the world’s media after the match, while in the same press conference a frustrated looking Michel Platini desperately tried to pay credit to the Canadians rather than focusing on his own side’s failings.

And Platini was right. The result was very much down to the stringent planning of Waiters in the days and weeks prior to the World Cup which almost paid off in the most spectacular way . “I downplayed the opposition,” he later explained. “I got a video of France and showed it to the players without the TV commentary, and pointed out their mistakes and errors. I was trying to make the point that we’re all human beings and that they could be beaten.”

The narrow defeat to France was about as good as it got for Canada who went down 2-0 in their next game against Hungary, a side who had been hammered 6-0 themselves in their first outing against the Soviet Union despite having a great chance to take the lead early on.

The final group game of Mexico ’86 also ended in defeat, another 2-0 loss, this time to the Soviet Union, meaning they would exit the tournament without registering a point and having not scored a goal in their three group games; they were out but not down.

Their efforts in Mexico had been achieved thanks to a prize crop of home-grown talent who had acquitted themselves superbly throughout their debut World Cup appearance in the face of incredible adversity, while inspiring an entire generation to take up the sport.

However, those two weeks in the summer of 1986 would prove to be the pinnacle of soccer in Canada and any hopes for a bright footballing future would wane soon after Waiters and his men had arrived home, with the entire fabric of that fine side unravelling spectacularly by the time the year was out.

With the collapse of the North American Soccer League, where many of the players in the Canadian squad made their living, prior to the start of the World Cup several of those who had become overnight stars suddenly found themselves unemployable, with nowhere to ply their trade when they returned home. Captain Bruce Wilson was one:

“Players were scrambling to find work,” Wilson later explained. “People had families and kids. George Pakos was a meter-reader repairman of some sort for the city of Victoria—and he scored two of the biggest goals Canada has ever scored, leading us to Mexico.”

Kuwait bring chaos in 1982.

Only a handful of the squad managed to secure regular contracts elsewhere in Europe. Colin Miller went on to play for Rangers, but the majority were left with only indoor football to fill the void and relieve the boredom while maintaining their fitness levels.

The shambolic nature of the domestic game following the World Cup of 1986 ensured that there would be no legacy to speak of following the nation’s first and only appearance at the tournament; but the fact that this multicultural melting pot of sports fanatics has now been chosen to host the biggest festival of football on earth will at last give the people of Canada the opportunity to show just what they are capable of; even if it will be almost half a century too late.

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