Canada's Ian Bridge challenges France's Jean-Pierre Papin in the first group game of the 1986 Mexico World Cup. Leon, Mexico. June 1 1986.

How Canada beat the odds to reach 1986 World Cup: ‘We relied on desire’

In March 2022, the Canada men’s national soccer team made history by beating Jamaica 4-0 to reach their first World Cup in 36 years.

It’s difficult to quantify just how big an achievement this is for English coach John Herdman’s team. While Premier League cult heroes like Craig Forrest, Tomasz Radzinski and, more recently, Junior Hoilett have all impressed for the Canucks down the years, qualification for the World Cup had largely eluded the USA’s considerably less noisy neighbours.

In fact, despite their status as the only nation aside from the U.S. and Mexico to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Canada’s sole appearance at a World Cup up until now came all the way back in 1986.

The squad that headed to Mexico 36 years ago was a far cry from the one bound for Qatar. Just five of the 22-man party taken to the World Cup by English manager Tony Waiters were playing in Europe at the time.

Instead, the majority had previously plied their trade in the North American Soccer League. First established in December 1967, the NASL provided the bedrock of the beautiful game stateside.

Though it collapsed in disarray by March 1985, with players spiralling off to join clubs in America’s indoor leagues, it proved crucial in establishing Canada as a competitive force.

“The reason for Canada having the success we had back in the 1980s was without a doubt due to our players having the opportunity to play in the NASL,” full-back and former Canada captain Bruce Wilson says.

“Playing with and against world-class players like Pele, George Best, Carlos Alberto, Johan Neeskens and Franz Beckenbauer had a major impact on the US and Canadian players and also guaranteed huge crowds.”

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New York Cosmos team with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. October 1977.

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A six-time NASL all-star, Wilson spent a decade in the division turning out for the Vancouver Whitecaps (1974-77), Chicago Sting (1978-79), New York Cosmos (1980) and Toronto Blizzard (1981-84).

“The Cosmos were huge,” he said. “Bringing Pele to the NASL was massive in terms of generating an interest in the game.”

According to Wilson, the NASL helped establish the foundations of the team that made it to the 86 finals in Mexico and, at its height, facilitated no fewer than five Canadian franchises.

“That was the training ground for Canada,” he said. “It was a pro league where we were able to compete at a fairly high level for a number of years. That experience of playing and training at a professional level was so important in terms of us getting the results we got in the Olympics and World Cup.”

The Olympics

Two years prior to Mexico, Canada got their first taste of big-stage international football after qualifying for the Olympics. The Canada squad’s inexperience proved something of a blessing.

This was the first Olympic football competition that allowed professionals to compete, provided they had no fewer than five senior caps at a tournament. Those rules allowed Canada to field a near full-strength team.

After drawing their opener with Iraq and going down 1-0 to a Yugoslavia side featuring future greats like Dragan Stojkovic and Srecko Katanec, the Canucks faced an all-or-nothing final group game against Cameroon, who had won the African Cup of Nations just a few months earlier.

Two goals from Dale Mitchell either side of a strike from youngster Igor Vrablic helped Canada claim a memorable 3-1 win which set up a quarter-final showdown with tournament favourites Brazil.

“Beating Cameroon at the Olympics was an important game for us, not least because it gave us a chance to play Brazil,” Wilson said.

Though the Selecao were far from being at full strength, there was still plenty of star quality in their line-up, including future World Cup winner Dunga.

Played just three days after their victory over the Indomitable Lions, Wilson recalled the game taking place in an unexpectedly frenzied atmosphere.

“We had to travel from Boston to San Francisco for the quarter-final game,” the then Canada captain recalls. “The game was played at Stanford University stadium. There were over 36,000 spectators there. For a Canada game in the USA. What are the odds?”

Canada didn’t let the occasion get to them though and took a deserved lead through Mitchell on 58 minutes. In fact, Canada had the ball in the net a second time only to have it incorrectly ruled out for offside. Brazil eventually equalised before winning on penalties. Despite the disappointment, the Maple Leafs earned rave reviews in the Brazilian press.

“Playing in the 1984 Olympics was another building block for the Canada team and a huge highlight for all of us,” Wilson says. “It was a fantastic result and great preparation for what lay ahead. From there we really started looking towards 1986 and the World Cup.”

World Cup Qualification

In Waiters, they had the ideal coach to steer them on. Born in Southport, England, Waiters turned out over 250 times as a goalkeeper for Blackpool and narrowly missed out on a place in Alf Ramsey’s squad for the 1966 World Cup.

He went on to enjoy success as a manager with Plymouth Argyle before making the surprising leap over the pond to take charge of the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he won the prestigious Soccer Bowl in 1979.

Waiters’ knowledge of the English game coupled with his experience in the NASL made him the ideal manager to turn Canada into a well-organised team that relied on defensive solidarity to grind out results.

“He was a very good coach with an extensive background of playing and managing in England and also Vancouver,” Wilson said. “We did not have any Peles or George Best. What we relied on was our desire.”

Qualification came down to the final game of the 1985 CONCACAF Championship against Honduras. Wilson remembers it well.

“We played Honduras at King George V Park in St John’s, Newfoundland and it was a near 100% Canadian crowd. That put us one goal ahead before the game even began,” he recalled.

There was another reason for the largely partisan crowd. According to fellow defender Bob Lenarduzzi, many Honduran fans ended up travelling to St John’s, New Brunswick – rather than St John’s, Newfoundland – leaving them with no time to reach the ground.

Qualification was ultimately sealed with a 2-1 win secured by another crucial goal bundled home by Vrablic, who was beginning to court interest from abroad.

The World Cup

Canada were heading to Mexico, but any hopes they may have had of making an impact at the World Cup were dented when they were drawn with Hungary, the Soviet Union and Euro 84 winners France.

“Our emotions going into the World Cup were mixed. We were extremely proud of making it to the finals,” Wilson said. “It was a very difficult group, for sure. However, we were the best team in CONCACAF and we deserved to be there.”

The mood at home appeared jubilant, regardless of their chances, with one band going as far as recording a song in support of their efforts. ‘(O Canada) We’ll Proudly Play For You’ by Sons of Andrew might not have hit the same heights as Three Lions, but it highlighted the mood back home going into the finals.

Even so, preparations were hindered by the loss of the NASL. Wilson, who was 34 by the time the World Cup rolled around, had been serving as player-manager at Toronto Inex, an indoor team that completed just a single season of friendlies against other touring sides.

The World Cup represented one last hurrah before he hung up his boots for good – but he was determined to go out on a high.

Facing off against France in their opening game, the Canucks gave a good account of themselves with Wilson serving as a de facto coach on the pitch.

With 11 minutes to go, the Maple Leafs looked on course for a shock draw until a mistake from goalkeeper Paul Dolan gifted Jean-Pierre Papin the only goal of the game. Despite the result, the players received a lift after hearing the response of France’s captain in a post-match interview.

“We lost but we played well for sure. In the press conference after the game the media were all over Michel Platini on the 1-0 result: ‘How is it possible that you, France, European Champions could barely beat Canada?’,” he recalls.

“Platini could have said anything. What he said to the horde of media people was quite complimentary: ‘I give Canada full credit for a hard-fought game. They played extremely well, and at the end of the day we are extremely happy with our 1-0 result.’”

Canada's Bruce Wilson takes a free-kick v France at the Mexico 1986 World Cup. Leon, Mexico, June 1 1986.

Bruce Wilson takes a free kick as Canada play France in the first group game of the Mexico 1986 World Cup. Leon, Mexico, June 1 1986.

By the time Canada faced Hungary five days later, the pressure was on. With France and the Soviet Union drawing, the Canucks knew defeat would mean early elimination.

They got off to the worst possible start when, after just two minutes, a lucky deflection gifted the ball to Marton Esterhazy who gave Hungary the lead. Things then went from bad to worse when the talismanic Wilson was forced off on 41 minutes.

Pushing forward in search of an equaliser, Canada were caught on the break on 75 minutes. Again, Hungary were fortunate with Lajos Detari pouncing on the rebound after a fine save by goalkeeper Tino Lettieri. There was still time for substitute Mike Sweeney to be sent off, making his own history as the first Canadian recipient of a red card in the process.

Beaten 2-0, Canada still had the prospect of a game against the Soviet Union, who had trounced Hungary 6-0, to come.

The Canucks initially held their own, keeping the Soviets at bay until the 58th minute when captain Oleg Blokhin broke the deadlock. They went on to win 2-0 with Canada departing the World Cup having failed to score a single goal.

The Aftermath

“From a Canadian perspective, we’ve given everything we’ve been able to give,” Waiters told reporters after the game. “In this World Cup, that was not enough to win a game or score a goal. But I think we have a solid base for the future. We realise what we have to do to improve as a country.”

Despite this positive outlook, ultimately Canada’s World Cup appearance would prove something of a false dawn. Waiters departed as manager soon while Wilson retired. The Canadian Soccer League was established but survived for just five years.

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Canada forward Jonathan David during the victory over French Guiana at BC Place, Vancouver, March 2019.

READ: Jonathan David’s bewitching dribble was magic dust for Canada & Arsenal

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Defender Randy Samuel went on to enjoy stints at PSV Eindhoven and Port Vale in the years that followed but his success was something of an outlier.

Vrablic, who had caught the eye of many, signed for Olympiacos but saw his international career end after he became embroiled in a match-fixing scandal after a friendly in Singapore.

A criminal investigation was launched and though the charges were eventually dropped, Vrablic and the other team-mates named were hit with bans by the Canadian Soccer Association. He lasted two years in Greece before disappearing off the map entirely.

The Future

Wilson wonders what might have been had the NASL stayed in place: “The key to us qualifying was the fact that most of our players had a background of playing in the NASL and looking back now one of the greatest reasons for the lack of continued success of our program was the collapse of the league.”

Thankfully he does not foresee any such problems with the current crop of players.

“I think the world had better [be ready] for us in Qatar. We will not be pushovers, that is for sure,” he says.

“Our results in qualifying have sent a message to the rest of the world that Canada deserves to be there. We are strong in all positions for sure and not only in the starting 11. We have good depth in all positions as we move ahead to Qatar. It’s going to be exciting.”

By Jack Beresford

This piece was originally published in March 2022.

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