You wouldn’t know it from the absolute lack of media coverage in the UK, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup – North & Central America’s equivalent of the European Championships – is currently being played out in the USA, and one of the minor surprises of the competition so far has been the progress of the Canadian national team, who have comfortably qualified for the quarter-finals with two wins from their three group matches against Jamaica and El Salvador. In the next round, they take on Honduras next Saturday in Philadelphia. The Canadian men’s national team has, however, a somewhat less than glorious record in the international stage. They have already been eliminated from the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa, picking up just two points from their six matches in a group which also contained Honduras, Mexico and Jamaica. They did qualify for the World Cup Finals once, though, in 1986, and they did so against what should have been insurmountable odds.

The story of Canada’s run to the 1986 World Cup Finals begins two years earlier at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. They qualified from their group, beating Cameroon 3-1 on the way, to make the quarter-finals of the competition, where they met Brazil at the Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto. What should have been a very one-sided match, however, didn’t go according to plan for Brazil, who required a second half equalizer to force a penalty shoot-out, which they won 5-3. Their performance in these Olympic Games (Brazil went on to pick up the silver medal, losing to France in the final), however, filled the squad with confidence that they had a chance of making the finals of the next World Cup. Such qualification, however, wouldn’t be easy. There were only two qualification places for teams from the CONCACAF region at the time, and when Colombia admitted that they were not able to host the tournament and were substituted for Mexico, that number dropped to one.

In addition to this, the vast majority of players in the Canadian squad made their living in the North American Soccer League. The league had been struggling for money after over-expanding in the early 1980s and had pinned its financial hopes on a bid to host the 1986 World Cup Finals. When the league finally expired early in 1985, many of the Candadian squad were left without clubs. A handful managed to get contracts in Europe (most notably Colin Miller at Rangers in Scotland), but the majority were left only with indoor football to try and maintain their fitness levels. Seventeen teams were in the tournament to play for a place representing CONCACAF at Mexico 86, but football in Central and North America at the time was very different to now. The USA certainly wasn’t the force that it is now (they went between 1950 and 1990 without qualifying for the World Cup Finals) and, with Mexico having qualified automatically for the tournament as hosts, it was an open field to see who would join them.

The first round was made up of knock-out matches and Canada had a stroke of luck when Jamaica withdrew for the tournament, giving them a bye to the finals of the CONCACAF Championship, which was the precursor to the current Gold Cup and also acted as the final tournament qualifier. There were three groups of three teams in the finals, with the winners of each group playing out a second round robin tournament for a place in Mexico. Canada won their first group against Guatemala and Haiti by two points, and had done enough by their final match in the second group against Honduras and Costa Rica to require just a single point from their last match, a home match against Honduras, to ensure their qualification. The match was played at St Johns in Newfoundland, in front of a small but noisy capacity crowd of 6,000. They took an early lead through George Pakos before being pegged back before a second half winner from a corner by Igor Vrablic guaranteed them a World Cup Finals for the first time.

Maybe the sheer vastness of the country meant that people overlooked what a surprise this qualification was. However, this was a country without anything like a strong domestic league of its own. The overwhelming majority of their players had also been on the receiving end of the demise of the NASL. They might have hoped for a little luck in the draw for the 1986 World Cup Finals, but there wasn’t any to be had there either. They were drawn against the European champions, France, the Soviet Union and Hungary. Outsiders to the extent that many bookmakers were taking bets on whether they would score rather than whether they would win any points or qualify for the second round of the competition, their opening match was in Leon against France. This of course, was the France of Platini, Giresse and Tigana. A side that had dazzled the world at the 1984 European Championships and been horribly unlucky to lose a World Cup semi-final against West Germany on penalties in 1982.

Somehow, though, Canada held their own and even occasionally threatened the French goal – Mike Sweeney had a shot headed off the line in the first half – before, with eleven minutes to play, Yannick Stopyra turned a deep cross back for Jean-Pierre Papin to stab the ball in from close range to give France both points. Deflated by the defeat, Canada did eventually fulfil most people’s expectations by dropping out of the tournament with neither a point nor a goal to their name. An early goal by Marton Esterhazy in their second match against Hungary was too much for them – Hungary went on to win 2-0 – before, already eliminated from the tournament, the Soviet Union, with goals from Oleg Blokhin and Aleksandr Zavarov, also beat them 2-0 in their final match. From an exceptionally difficult group, however, they had emerged with their pride intact.

Should they beat Honduras next week, Canada are likely to face the USA in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and this may be where their run in the competition ends. It might have been expected that Canada’s run to the 1986 World Cup finals may have heralded a new era for the game in the country but this didn’t happen. Hamstrung by financial constraints, the country’s domestic leagues floundered in the early 1990s and it wasn’t until the creation of Toronto FC in 2006 and a place in America’s Major League Soccer that the game showed significant signs of life in the country again. TFC have been an outstanding success off the pitch, if not always on it. They average home crowds of over 20,000 and won the 2009 Canadian Championship, and such has been the popularity of the club that a second Canadian franchise for MLS has been awarded to Vancouver for the 2011 season. Whilst we won’t see them in South Africa next summer, with there clearly being an unprecedented appetite for football in Canada it may only be a matter of time before we do get to see them in the World Cup Finals again.

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