Canada & The 1986 World Cup

15 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   July 12, 2009  |     24

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.



Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • July 13, 2009 at 12:44 am

    A. Ruiz

    Well, theres also the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. They play in the USL and Montreal actually qualified for the the quarterfinals in the CONCACAF Champions League last year.They played Santos Laguna in front of 55,000 at home and won.

  • July 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm


    interesting article. I can’t add more about Canadian football, but I was in Vancouver recently and took in the Whitecaps-Miami game. In front of a sparse crowd (c6000, most likely due to a clash with the deciding Stanley Cup (Ice Hockey) game), the quality was roughly similar to League 1. Apart from a highly dubious second goal from the home team (2:50 in the clip below), the talking point was a clash between two Vancouver players towards the end. Fortunately footage is online, and the official Whitecaps video doesn’t shirk its responsibility to show what happened (forward to 7:40):
    (although the sound is distorted for some reason)

    Anyway, it was notable that the crowd was generally only motivated by the mascot, and the hardcore supporters were accommodated on a couple of benches behind one of the goals. Behind the other goal, a VIP area with tables and chairs laid out (at ground level) as if on a family patio, with BBQs catering to the needs of the mighty and powerful. On the whole, a very relaxed atmosphere, but not quite a frenzy.

  • July 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm


    “Anyway, it was notable that the crowd was generally only motivated by the mascot, and the hardcore supporters were accommodated on a couple of benches behind one of the goals. Behind the other goal, a VIP area with tables and chairs laid out (at ground level) as if on a family patio, with BBQs catering to the needs of the mighty and powerful. On the whole, a very relaxed atmosphere, but not quite a frenzy.”

    Sounds like Milton Keynes…

  • July 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    A. Ruiz

    Well, that’s USL for you Wayne.

    Which is why they’re joining MLS in a few years and will try and replicate Toronto’s and Seattle’s success.

  • July 15, 2009 at 7:17 am


    Seattle’s former USL crowds didn’t compare favorably to Vancouver’s. The leap up to MSL has exponentially improved the quality here. Vancouver should have a similar leap in quality, especially since they’ll come with a national rivalry with Toronto and a regional rivalry with Seattle, the two best fan bases in the league.

  • July 15, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Duane Rollins

    The Canadian “effort” in 2010 WCQ has to be looked at with a bit of suspicion — the team quit on a manager it didn’t want in the first place (’86 veteran Dale Mitchell) and never played anywhere near its capabilities. Canada was widely seen as, at worse, the third best team at the 2007 Gold Cup, playing under interim coach Stephen Hart.

    Hart’s back now and pounce again Canada is playing well (although the ’09 Gold Cup has to be put in full perspective. Most of the major CONCACAF powers have sent experimental teams). How well Canada does in three years time will be determined in a lot of ways by who it ends up hiring to manage (Hart is the players choice, but he may not want the job).

    The club game is growing at all levels and interest in watching sport is finally catching up with the massive interest there is in playing it (more kids play football in Canada than ice hockey…). That said, when it comes to performing in CONCACAF, Canada has always been an enigma — seemingly better than its results and never predictable (when you think the program is down and out it makes a deep run at the Gold Cup. When you think it’s about to make a breakthrough, it craps the bed).

    As a Canadian that has followed this team very closely since 1985, I believe the talent is there to make it back to the Finals. But, as a Canadian that has followed this team closely since 1985, I’ll believe they can make it when I’m standing in a stadium in Brazil listening to the national anthem being played…

  • July 16, 2009 at 3:32 am

    Richard Whittall

    I would recommend watching archived CBC television footage of the story of the ’86 World Cup qualifiers. There is nothing more heartbreaking for the Canadian soccer fanatic than watching the national team paraded through Vancouver when no one showed up:

  • July 16, 2009 at 7:26 pm


    We didn’t score in the 86 World Cup BUT WE HIT THE POST AGAINST THE SOVIET UNION!

    Having been at the Saputo Stadium in Montreal for Team Canada’s agonizing defeat at the hands of a capable Honduran team in WCQ, I am pleading with the gods of football to grant us victory on Saturday. We shall see.

    Thanks for the article and for the archived CBC footage!

  • July 17, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    Duane Rollins


    We hit to post against France. We just missed the goal against the USSR (on a Dale Mitchell free kick)

  • July 19, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Derryl Murphy

    Duane, the other CONCACAF teams may be experimental, but Canada is without some major players as well. I thought they did quite well, considering, but got rooked by the ref against Honduras. As I tell my boys, though, if you don’t score any goals you’re never going to win the game.

  • July 20, 2009 at 7:37 pm


    I believe we actually hit the SEIKO sign rather than the post against the French in ’86 (it was a TV trick of the eye).

    There are good players in Canada but the problem is the structure of the game here. The best teams rarely play the best teams from other areas of the country and the emphasis on age and district rather than ability is what is really killing the sport. It is set up like ice hockey and many of the coaches have an ice hockey mentality. The director of Canadian football recommended that any good players from Canada should declare for another country due to the horrible set up and politics of Canadian football. (I have firsthand experince as my brother who is on trial for Sheffield Wednesday only has dreams of playing for Ireland).

    I’m afraid France ’86 appears to be an anomly and it will take a generation or two for Canada to make any sort of impact internationally.

  • July 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    maurice bourne

    The U.S. league refused to release players for Canada e.g. Branko. Mulroney was having a snooze feast with Reagan at the time, but of course didn’t bother to ask @ where was F.I.F.A.????? That’s the big unanswerable question. Did our parttime postman get a game? Really good article about a really good team that beat Greece 2-0 in the run up.

  • July 22, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Joost Z

    Picking the USSR, France and Hungary out of the hat wasn’t bad luck at all; it gave Canada two dream opponents (European champions France and the USSR of Zavarov and Belanov) plus a decent Hungary. Whoever they had drawn for the World Cup, it would have made no difference in the end: 1st round elimination. Drawing two of the most skillful and exciting sides in the world was some way, therefore, to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event for Canada’s players.

    I still recall Randy Samuel playing for Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven in the mid- to late-eighties.

  • May 26, 2010 at 1:15 am

    What’s the point of three goalkeepers? | News Blog

    […] had plied their trade. The story of their qualification and their efforts in Mexico can be found here and […]

  • May 19, 2012 at 1:49 am

    Daniel V.

    My uncle igor vrablic was in the 1986 world cup with canada!

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