Just over 30 years ago, on a patchy surface in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada’s national men’s team battled, scored twice and defeated Honduras to qualify for the 1986 World Cup.
They’ve not been back to world football’s signature event in the three decades since, and it was against Honduras that their aspirations of qualifying for the last World Cup came to an end in October 2012.
Came to an emphatic, humiliating, nightmare-inducing end.
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Beaten 8-1 in San Pedro Sula (they required a draw to progress into the next round of CONCACAF qualifying), the Canadians came within a late, Iain Hume goal of matching their worst-ever defeat: an 8-0 drubbing to Mexico in 1993. Manager Stephen Hart quit; the country’s football fans writhed, railed and finally hung their heads.
It wasn’t until the next summer, and following another abysmal showing in the Gold Cup, that Hart’s permanent successor, Benito Floro, was hired.
On Friday the Spaniard will face Honduras for the first time in his career, and in Los Catrachos he’ll find an opponent that is very much burrowed inside Canada’s collective head.
An 8-1 embarrassment can do that, especially for the fans who have turned up, tuned in and suffered with the team, time after agonizing time; fans who, no doubt entangled in the full range of feelings between hope and despair, will once again run the emotional gauntlet on Friday.
They’ve not changed—not in their willingness to trust, to cheer and, more often than not, to go to bed with a broken heart.
Although there’s likely more of them than there were two years ago. A home-soil Women’s World Cup and the continuing growth of the sport have seen to that. And the faces in the crowd will be different. Vancouver’s BC Place will host the match, giving fans on the west coast a first taste of World Cup qualifying in more than 10 years.
They’ll be supporting a line-up with five or six changes to the one that lost 8-1, Queens Park Rangers winger Junior Hoilett foremost among them.
The 25-year-old finally declared for Canada in September and made his long-awaited international debut in a friendly match vs. Ghana last month. Although he’s not exactly lived up to his bumper contract at QPR (the club tried to offload him in the summer) his addition to the Canadian setup is meaningful, both because of what he offers in attack and the sense of purpose his arrival has inspired.
The Canadian Soccer Association, to their credit, have also brought Glasgow Rangers winger Faser Aird into the fold ahead of this World Cup qualifying round. The 20-year-old, who represented Scotland at underage level, was named his club’s Young Player of the Year in 2013-14 and, along with the likes of Samuel Piette, Cyle Larin and Tesho Akindele, will lend a youthful element to the squad.
Nine of Canada’s players called up for the Honduras and El Salvador (next Tuesday) matches are 23-years-old or younger.
Honduras, incidentally, could end up fielding seven or eight players at BC Place who had a hand in the historic win over Canada three years ago, including an identical midfield unit. Mario Martinez, who tortured Canada’s right-hand side in San Pedro Sula, will once again work from the left, and Jerry Bengtson, who scored a hat-trick that afternoon, will front the attack.
Bengtson, however, is nowhere near the player he was in 2012 and has scored just twice for his country since the last World Cup qualifying cycle.
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Back then, it’s worth pointing out, Honduras went into their showdown with Canada on the back of a five-match unbeaten streak. This time they’ve not won in four and have just a single victory from their last 11 outings. Their showing at the Gold Cup this past summer was an unmitigated disaster and manager Jorge Luis Pinto, who took Costa Rica to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, is under even more pressure than his Canadian counterpart.
Floro, while not exactly running an offensive juggernaut, has nevertheless instilled a sense of system in his squad—something Hart was never able to do. His teams are defensively sound, and ahead of kick off Les Rouges are unbeaten in four, having lost only twice in 2015.
As unlikely as it sounds, Canada are the form team going into Friday, although Honduras have the mental advantage of an 8-1 triumph to draw on.
To that end all the hosts can do is play within Floro’s system, anticipate the different looks their incoming players will provide the match-up and buckle down and battle, like they did 30 years ago in St. John’s.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter