Canada at World Cup 1986: an era of great talent that amounted to nothing

Canada at World Cup 1986: an era of great talent that amounted to nothing

WHEN IGOR VRABLIC bundled the ball over the Honduras goal-line for Canada at King George V Park in St John’s, Newfoundland one cold Saturday afternoon in September 1985, he stepped into Canadian footballing immortality. His goal that day helped secure his adopted nation their first, and to this day, only trip to the World Cup finals.

In the year 2000, the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame was launched. Vrablic’s name remains conspicuous by its absence. After over a decade and a half of annual inductees, he isn’t alone in being a glaring omission.

News of Canada’s involvement in a combined bid to host the 2026 World Cup finals, alongside Mexico and the USA, once again puts the spotlight on the one and only occasion the Canucks played on football’s most elevated stage.

In black and white terms, Canada went to Mexico 86, where they played three, lost three and failed to register a goal to call their own. Going into the tournament, they were widely viewed as one of the most disproportionate visitors the World Cup finals had ever welcomed. Ever since then, Canada’s fleeting relationship with the World Cup finals in 1986 has largely been forgotten outside the confines of their homeland.

While a nation as illustrious as the Netherlands were forced to watch Mexico 86 from afar, the Canadian national team were sat aboard their team coach, being goaded by local residents as they approached the Estadio Nou Camp, in León, to face the European champions France in their opening game. Gestures were made to denote how many goals Michel Platini and his enigmatic teammates were going to put past them. Six, seven, eight goals were fully expected.

A short few hours later, during a press conference within the bowels of the Nou Camp, the assembled press pack were relentlessly grilling Platini and his coach Henri Michel, about how they had contrived for themselves the need to rely upon a late Jean-Pierre Papin goal to clinch a narrow 1-0 victory against their inferior opponents.

Bearing witness to this spectacle were Tony Waiters and Bruce Wilson, Canada’s head coach and captain. Only minimally interacted with throughout the press conference, Waiters and Wilson took great satisfaction when Platini, with his head in his hands, weary and frustrated, tried to get his message across to the blinkered journalists before him, that they had to give Canada great credit for the way they had played. While Canada were crudely ignored by the members of the press, praise was being delivered by Caesar himself.   

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Canadian football had reached its very zenith in León. Their next two games resulted in back-to-back 2-0 defeats at the hands of Hungary and the Soviet Union, both in Irapuato. The game against a regressing Hungary was a missed opportunity, having been played within the slipstream of Canada’s promising performance against France. Conceding a goal within two minutes, and compounding that with a late red card for substitute Mike Sweeney, was a major disappointment after the positives taken five days earlier.

Regardless of that, it had been an unforgiving group in which Canada had found themselves placed, and they had acquitted themselves admirably throughout their debut World Cup campaign. A bright future of further World Cup appearances was hoped for. By September that year, however, the entire fabric of a national side which had enjoyed a near club-like ethos had begun to unravel.

The 1986 World Cup came within a void at club level in North America. Sat between the 1985 disbanding of the NASL and the 1987 launch of the Canadian Soccer League, many of Canada’s players were forced to take up offers to play in the Major Indoor Soccer League as a way of means to pay their bills and feed their families. Only a small number of the squad had secured contracts within the conventional form of the game.

Reaching Mexico 86 had been a deserved fruition of a golden generation of Canadian players, and a borderline miracle. The Honduras side they defeated in St John’s had been drawn from what was still the nucleus of the squad which had qualified for Spain 82, where they came agonisingly close to progressing from the initial group stages at the expense of the host nation.

The chosen venue for the game had taken virtually everyone by surprise. Offered generous financial increments, the Canadian Soccer Association was quick to sign the deal with St John’s. There was a degree of subsidiary method in the madness to the decision, however. 

Canada’s head coach, Waiters, was a former England international goalkeeper, who had been desperately unlucky to miss out on a place in Alf Ramsey’s squad for the 1966 World Cup finals. He was a man who had previously turned down the offer of an interview for the role of Canada’s head coach, before later taking the job on in 1981.

The King George V Park in St John’s was no more than a makeshift stadium, sat centrally within a public park. Temporary bleachers were brought in to enclose the pitch from surrounding car parks. Out on a limb and exposed to the elements, the choice of venue was designed as much to gain a climate-based advantage over their rivals as it was a commercially driven decision.

Geographically, St John’s is closer to the British Isles than it is to Vancouver. Honduras encountered something of a culture shock. Arriving to torrential rain and freezing winds, Honduras’ players and staff didn’t venture outside their hotel for the first 48 hours of their stay. When they began training, they opted for an indoor arena.

Igor Vrablic

Out on the pitch at King George V Park, when the national anthems were played prior to kick-off, Honduras players were stood there shivering. Canada, rather than feeling Machiavellian about the situation, instead felt a degree of karma was unfolding. Just under three weeks earlier, the reverse fixture had been played out in the baking climate of a 3pm kick-off, in a hostile Tegucigalpa atmosphere.

Canada had exited Honduras with a shock 1-0 victory. The veteran striker George Pakos grabbing the only goal of the game. Pakos had been dropped from the squad after the earlier rounds of qualification but was recalled when star striker Dale Mitchell ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament.

In St John’s, it was Pakos who once again opened the scoring, on a day when a draw would be enough to simultaneously clinch World Cup qualification, and win Canada the CONCACAF Championship. When Armando Betancourt equalised early in the second half, Canada were on the ropes for a while, until Vrablic’s intervention.

It was an aesthetically ugly goal, yet on a sensory level it was the most beautiful goal in Canadian football history. Upon the full-time whistle, Canada’s heroes were swamped by a joyous pitch invasion. The stricken Mitchell, recovering at home and watching events unfold on his television, was soon answering his phone, as his teammates immediately contacted him to ensure he knew he was a part of their success, and that his focus now had to be on regaining his fitness in time for Mexico.

Vrablic, however, was now the ascending star of the team. Born in Bratislava but having emigrated as a child to Canada with his brother and parents, he had opted to represent his adopted nation at international level, rather than the country of his birth. Now playing his football in Belgium with FC Sérésien, it was for the love of Canada more than anything else that he regularly travelled thousands of miles to play for the Canucks.

Another footballer to be swayed into playing his international football for Canada was Manchester-born Carl Valentine. A West Bromwich Albion player at the time of qualification, Valentine had been a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 1979 Soccer Bowl-winning side, a side led by Waiters, whose powers of persuasion had finally, and very timely, won Valentine over.

Valentine had the great fortune to be involved in arguably the two greatest moments in Canadian football history. When the Whitecaps returned home from their Soccer Bowl victory over the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, they did so to a reception of an estimated 100,000 people taking to the streets.

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Despite the demise of the NASL and the lack of an immediate replacement, it was no fluke that Canada reached Mexico 86. The nucleus of the squad which achieved this feat was the very same set of players who had taken part in the 1984 Olympic football tournament.

In the USA, Canada had progressed from their group impressively, before facing Brazil in the quarter-finals. With Dunga in their ranks, Brazil struggled badly against Canada. With Mitchell having given Canada the lead, a second goal was cruelly disallowed, shortly before Brazil equalised. An erroneous offside decision had denied Canada a second goal which could well have put them into the semi-finals.

The game eventually went to a penalty shoot-out, during which Brazil’s greater experience came to the fore. While it was a bitter disappointment to his players, Waiters was a little more philosophical. While the disallowed goal had been wrongly adjudged to be offside, he was magnanimous enough to admit that it had come from a move instigated from a free-kick that should never have been given in the first place.

Waiters stood down as Canada’s head coach after Mexico 86, passing the baton on to his assistant, another Englishman, Bob Bearpark. It was Bearpark who took an experimental Canadian squad to Singapore in late-August to take part in the Merlion Cup.

An invitation tournament, Bearpark took an array of youth and shadow players, along with a small selection of players from the Mexico 86 squad in Vrablic, along with Paul Dolan, Randy Ragan, Paul James, Dave Norman, Jamie Lowrey and Mike Sweeney.

A six-team, round-robin tournament, with the top four advancing to the semi-finals, Canada were deemed the favourites. In the semi-finals they faced North Korea, whom they’d drawn 0-0 with during the group stages.

It was during an idle game of cards that the future direction of the Canadian national team dramatically changed direction. Vrablic and Norman had been joined by Hector Marinaro and Chris Chueden. Another Mexico 86 hero, Paul James was also invited to take part. It wasn’t any normal game of cards, however, as James soon found himself to be the recipient of a tempting offer, yet also a moral dilemma. A share of $100,000 had been offered to those sat around the table to throw the game against North Korea.

With precarious club futures, all members of the card school accepted the offer. The game was lost 2-0, but James had had second thoughts. After the game, he returned the money to the other players, and later confided in his teammate Ragan over what had happened.

Paul James and Randy Samuel

On returning to Canada, a snowball effect took hold. Having approached the now retired Mexico 86 captain, Wilson, he then took the allegations to Waiters, and onward to the CSA itself. A criminal investigation sprang into action and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police charged Vrablic, Norman, Marinaro and Chueden with accepting bribes.

A protracted investigation then took place before the criminal proceedings were eventually dropped, deemed to be out of Canadian jurisdiction. The CSA, however, implemented playing bans on the four involved.

James, in a bid to distance himself from the others, was open and transparent about the incident, and came away without sanctions. In time, Norman eventually came clean on his involvement, and he even made a return to the national team some years later, as did Marinaro. Chueden never played for Canada again.

Vrablic too never returned to the national team, and within a few short years had completely vanished from the game. Aged only 21 at the time, and having moved on to Olympiacos after Mexico 86, his career just seemed to evaporate. The man who could have carried the flag for the Canadian national team toward the new Millennium was lost, and so was Canada’s optimistic future.

While accepting the bribes on offer had to be tempting to the players who were faced with an uncertain future, Vrablic, with a slowly blossoming career in Europe ahead of him and youth on his side is a bewildering matter. He eventually returned to Canada, where he melted into society, never taking up the game again, and instead involving himself in horse racing with his wife.

Vrablic, like Norman, and somewhat more curiously Pakos, are to this day the jarring omissions from the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. James, the Merlion Cup whistleblower, was inducted in 2003. Hopefully, one day, time will be able to heal the wounds and Vrablic’s differences with the game can be reconciled, so that his contribution to his adopted nation reaching Mexico 86 can be truly celebrated.

Perhaps by 2026, the olive branch and the maple leaf might have been extended in time for Canada’s potential return to the World Cup finals.

By Steven Scragg  @Scraggy_74

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