In the summer of 1986, Canada’s men’s national soccer team played three games in Mexico for their first (and still only) World Cup appearance. Nearly 30 years later, the men who took the field in red and white remember it like it was yesterday. Leading up to the tournament, the team had talent and experience, but qualification out of CONCACAF was no given. For the Canadians, it all boiled down to a crucial home-and-away series with Honduras.
BRUCE WILSON, DEFENDER The game [in Honduras] was at three in the afternoon. We were in an open-air hotel and as we’re walking down to have breakfast in the hotel at nine in the morning, I look across and I can see the stadium—and the stadium was full. So I said to one of the servers, “What’s happening at the stadium this morning?” The guy said, “They’re waiting for you.”
IAN BRIDGE, DEFENDER You’d be taking the bus through the winding streets—we had a police escort most of the time—and the fans would be doing things like, y’know, drawing a line across their throats.
DALE MITCHELL, STRIKER There are some hostile environments. It’s not pretty when you go into those places.
BRIDGE Before the game, the place is already packed with 40,000 Hondurans. Tino [Lettieri, Canada’s starting keeper] walks right out in the middle of the centre circle, this little, squat, roly-poly goalkeeper, and he points to one side of the stands, and they whistle and boo, then he points to the other side and they go. Doing that back and forth. He totally defused the situation, and I think he entertained the fans a little bit.
Canada escaped with a 1–0 victory on a George Pakos goal in the 58th minute. The win left the team needing only a tie in the last game in St. John’s, N.L., on Sept. 14, 1985.
WILSON We played at King George V field, which was a city park. They brought bleachers around. Nobody could figure out why the heck we would play such a big game in such a little venue.
TONY WAITERS, HEAD COACH The only reason we went there was the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association gave the CSA [Canadian Soccer Association] a financial guarantee—the CSA would get X-thousand dollars. When the Hondurans came to St. John’s on the Thursday, it was bucketing down. It was a miserable day. They went in the hotel and weren’t seen again.
WILSON The Honduran fans did show up, but a few planeloads ended up going to the wrong St. John’s—they went to Saint John, N.B., and they missed the flippin’ game. The Canadian crowd was fantastic. The atmosphere was electric—when we walked onto the field, we just felt we were a goal ahead.
BRIDGE It was cool and rainy, like it would be on the East Coast. I remember most of the Hondurans had long sleeves. Many of them wore gloves as well. We’re all just wearing short sleeves—the tough Canadians. The conditions were very much to our advantage.
WAITERS The first goal [off a corner], Ian Bridge came in and he was knocking all sorts of people over, and the ball fell down at George Pakos’s feet.
BRIDGE I got injured and didn’t play the second half. I was in the change room. I just listened to the game, because I couldn’t watch. I drank a couple of beers that were there waiting. Then we got the second, but still I stayed in the shower.
WAITERS We’d fast-tracked Carl Valentine’s citizenship a couple of years before to get him into the Olympics. Then the North American Soccer League collapsed and he went off to West Brom [in England]. We called him up and said, “We’ve got one game left and if we can get the right result we’re going to the World Cup. Will you come and join us?” He played with West Brom on the Saturday, flew in on the Sunday. Spent most of the night throwing up, just all of the excitement of what was happening. The second goal in St. John’s came from a Carl Valentine corner.
BRIDGE For the last two minutes I was able to go out. Then I celebrated with the guys, limping around. The rest of that evening is a bit of a blur.
Having clinched with a 2–1 win, Canada faced the prospect of preparing for the biggest stage in sports with little money and unemployed players.
RANDY SAMUEL, DEFENDER Our league went under a year and a half prior, so being put into that spotlight was new.
WILSON Nobody was working. The NASL folded in 1984. I was 34 at the time and I was saying, “Guys, I’d love to play for Canada, but I don’t have a job.” Without Tony Waiters’s leadership I don’t think we would have made the World Cup. [He] managed to get me on the payroll with the CSA for a year to go across the country to different events and promote our team.
WAITERS It was a bit of a losing battle. The players were threatening if they didn’t get the money due to them for reaching the World Cup, they wouldn’t go. It got to that stage, even though I didn’t think for one moment they wouldn’t go. [In the end] they didn’t get very much—when the team qualified I got a bonus of $8,000.
WILSON Players were scrambling to find work; 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.
WAITERS Most of the players had no team, so what we did was we formed more or less a team-in-being. And we’d go pretty well anywhere that would pay for us to come in and pay us when we got there. So we had a tour of North Africa. We went into Asia as well. Any opportunity to get a game where there’d be money coming in so we could turn some of that money around into players’ pockets.
SAMUEL We went to Colorado specifically to prepare for the altitude in Mexico. We had two to three training sessions a day. Funny things happen to you when you have less oxygen in your blood. That was the hardest training I’ve ever done in my life.
BRIDGE I was playing over in Switzerland at the time, so my mum used to send me newspaper clippings [about the Canadian team]. I wasn’t released to come back until about a week before the World Cup. I was trying to get away from my club, and they were going to release me as soon as we were safe mathematically from relegation. But we kept drawing games, and I was so pissed off. I did altitude training over there. I stayed up in a ski resort that was closed but they opened it up for me just to go up and live. I’d come back down to my club and play, then go back and live at altitude.
Arriving in Mexico, the Canadians were the underdogs of the tournament.
WAITERS The important thing was not to get blown out of the water. El Salvador were in the ’82 World Cup and got beat by Hungary 10–1. We didn’t want to do that.
WILSON I think it was 300–1 against us scoring a goal.
PAUL DOLAN, GOALKEEPER Because everyone predicted we would get hammered in the tournament, we were just going to give it our best shot with no weight of expectation. Most of the players were more excited than nervous or scared.
WILSON Whatever people thought, we didn’t care. We qualified from our zone—the only team of 19 that started. We knew we deserved to be there. We’d played with Pele, we played against Georgie Best and Johan Cruyff in the NASL. That’s what I fell back on.
BRIDGE We watched the opening game on TV—I think it was Italy-Bulgaria. On the one hand you’re watching as a fan; on the other you’re thinking, “Shit, we’re in this.”
Canada’s first game was against European champions France, led by three-time Ballon d’Or winner Michel Platini and future Ballon d’Or striker Jean-Pierre Papin.
BOB LENARDUZZI, DEFENDER Prior to the game, Mexican fans held up their fingers to indicate what the score would be. They needed both hands for France.
MITCHELL Tony was a master at going through other teams and bringing them down to earth.
BRIDGE He showed us a video of France playing, but he just turned the sound down. You couldn’t tell it was the European champions. There were mistakes made, bad passes. It made us think, OK, these guys aren’t Supermen, they’re not so special. Tony stops the video and says, “These guys put their shorts on one leg at a time just like you. Go out and do the business.”
DOLAN We knew we couldn’t just sit back and have France pick us apart as [they were] maybe the best passing team in the world. Our strength was our fitness, determination and competitiveness.
BRIDGE I remember the first action I had—France had the kickoff, played the ball back, then played it forward. And I just hammered the ball and Dominique Rocheteau at the same time, and he went down. I think he realized he was in a game then.
DOLAN We had a couple of very good chances before they settled down.
BRIDGE I had probably the biggest chance, on a free kick. I look beside me and it’s Michel Platini marking me. And I’m going, “That’s kinda cool!” Then he absolutely lets me go. Worst defending ever. I headed towards goal and it was probably three to four feet wide. Should’ve scored. Then I’m running back and I’m swearing at myself—“How’d you miss that?!”
BRIDGE [Papin] had some great chances, but as the game wore on you think, “Maybe they’re not going to score. It might be our night.”
DOLAN I was able to make a few saves and the French were guilty of not taking their chances, but there was such a determination from our team on the day that they weren’t really able to carve us up the way many thought they would.
WAITERS The French were beginning to settle for a tie.
DOLAN I was in the goal in front of the French supporters and they had a tradition of throwing a live rooster at the opposing goalkeeper. I was so focused on the match I couldn’t really have any fun with it, so I just left it to scramble around.
BARRY DAVIES, BBC COMMENTATOR [over the air] And Paul Dolan won’t take the goal kick, because somebody has thrown a cockerel onto the pitch. There he is, in the six-yard area—clearly offside.
SAMUEL You’re in a World Cup game against France and all of a sudden a rooster is running on the field. The linesman came over and covered it up because nobody could catch the thing.
Eventually Papin capitalized, finally breaking Canada down to head in a cross after 79 minutes.
DOLAN The altitude meant the cross continued to fly and when I reached to parry it out of play I was only able to get the slightest of touches with my finger. It wasn’t enough to throw off the player at the back post who headed it to Papin.
LENARDUZZI Paul kept us in the game. He was fantastic, so you couldn’t fault him at that point.
BRIDGE After the game, I was picked to go on French TV. I was sitting beside their manager and he was very complimentary. He was shocked that we played this high pressure—he didn’t think any team could do that at this altitude. It would have been a huge upset to even get a 0–0 draw, but a one-goal game on a late winner against the European champions is quite respectable.
WILSON I was in the press conference, and someone asked Platini, “How is it with your team you only win 1–0?” Platini could have said anything—he was the top midfielder in the world. He said, “You gotta give the Canadians credit, they played hard. It was difficult for us. We’re happy to score that one goal.”
Building on the solid showing against France, the Canadians were confident going into their match against Hungary, the team to qualify first out of Europe.
BRIDGE [The France result] just solidified the feeling in the team. It was up to us what we do against Hungary. The next day we went and watched Hungary get absolutely hammered by Russia, 6–0. So now we’re thinking “Shit, if we can get a result against Hungary, there’s potential we’d go through to the next round.” Giving up the early goal against, I think we lost a big chance.
LENARDUZZI We went into the game thinking we were the favourites instead of doing what we did in the first game, which was putting our heads down, doing the work and playing the percentages. That’s the one I think we let get away.
Canada lost 2–0. Between games the Canadians trained hard, but also had time to relax and enjoy the moment.
BRIDGE Sitting in the shade of a tree, playing cards, having a couple of cold beers—those are the things that are like postcards in my mind. At our training centre there was a big hot tub that we used to just throw the lawn chairs in and sit in and have a beer. Tino [Lettieri] cooked some meals for us.
SAMUEL Tino [who now owns a restaurant in Minnesota] was a very good chef. He had been saying that he would fix us up a nice meal when we got there. He put a big spread out. It was pretty incredible.
Canada’s third match was against a strong Soviet Union led by reigning Ballon d’Or winner, midfielder Igor Belanov.
WAITERS Most people assumed we were going home, but if we’d been able to win that game, the way the qualification was for the next stage, we could have gone on.
BRIDGE It’s noon and it’s stinking hot. I remember looking across in the warm-up and the Russians are playing a kind of five-a-side at super high speeds. And we’re stretching, just trying to survive the warm-up. I’m thinking, “Holy shit, these guys look dangerous.” We held them for a long time, scoreless after about 60 minutes or so. Then they brought on two of their big stars in Zavarov and Belanov. Zing, zing—with the fresh legs they score two goals. It was demoralizing.
The Canadians again lost 2–0, finishing without either a win or a goal scored, but they’d proven they could compete at the highest level of the game.
DOLAN It was a truly phenomenal experience and something I can always cherish that I was able to participate in.
WILSON Our ambition as players and as a team was to compete well, to represent our country well.
SAMUEL For the team, I think that just qualifying for the World Cup was like winning the World Cup for us. It wasn’t something we had expected. Just getting there for the first time in the history of Canadian soccer was special. We just wanted to hold our own. I think we did that. We did Canadian soccer proud.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.