This series of articles will celebrate (or laugh at) some of the worst professional sports teams of all time. I will focus on teams within my lifetime so expect the worst from the 1970s to present day.
Everyone knows that Canada is known for hockey. After all, it is our game. We live it. Breathe it. Feel it. It is the game that Canadians are most passionate about. However, in 1986, Canada did something it has never done before, or since. Qualify for the 1986 World Cup of soccer in Mexico.
Canada’s last fixture was against Honduras in St. John’s Newfoundland. The winner would earn a trip to Mexico. The loser would go home. In a thrilling match, Igor Vrablic tallied home the winner in the 61st minute to give Canada an enthralling 2-1 result, and a berth in the biggest sporting event on the planet.
The Canadians were coached by Englishman Tony Waiters, who led the Vancouver Whitecaps to an NASL title in 1979. Waiters also managed Canada in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, where they advanced to the quarterfinals, before being eliminated by Brazil.
Canada was drawn into Group C with France, Hungary and the Soviet Union. The French were one of the favourites to win the World Cup. Hungary and the Soviets were expected to battle for second place. Canada were tremendous underdogs, but decided to go in with a nothing to lose, everything to gain attitude.
Their first match was against the powerful French. Les Bleus were led by the gifted midfielder Michel Platini, who was wondrous in Euro 84, leading France to win their first major international trophy. Canada knew they had to play a perfect match in order to get a positive result. They would have to defend brilliantly, while use the counter attack with precision and intelligence. The Canadians did defend brilliantly as they held off a swarming French attack. However, the one chance Canada did have to score, Mike Sweeney’s shot hit the crossbar, which left Canada bereft. It could come back to haunt Canada as the French continued forward, when finally Jean-Pierre Papin’s header found the back of the net in the 79th minute giving France a 1-0 victory.
Next up for Canada was Hungary, who were thrashed 6-0 in their opening fixture by the Soviet Union. Canada was hoping they could capitalize on a shaky back four from the Hungarians, but it wasn’t meant to be. In the second minute, Hungarian striker Marton Esterhazy found the back of the net, to draw first blood for Hungary. Canada spent the rest of the match on their heels, as the Hungarians pushed forward. Despite some strong defending from the likes of Bob Lenarduzzi, Bruce Wilson and Randy Samuel, the Canadians couldn’t stem the tide any further. Hungary tallied the insurance marker in the 75th minute thanks to Lajos Detari, which would give Hungary a 2-0 win. To make matters worse, Mike Sweeney was sent off in the 85th minute for a harsh yet needless challenge.
The final match for Canada was against the Soviets. In hockey, this would be a marquee matchup between two bitter international rivals. But in soccer, this had mismatch written all over it. The Soviets looked strong in the tournament, thrashing Hungary, and holding France to a draw. Canada could defend, but had no firepower up front whatsoever. Once again, Canada defended bravely, led by captain Wilson who, if you give him a tweed jacket, a pipe and a Volvo, he would look like a university professor, not a soccer player. But the Soviets attacked relentlessly, and they finally produced a goal in the 58th minute, courtesy of Oleg Blokhin. Aleksandr Zavarov sealed the match in the 74th minute to give the Soviets a 2-0 victory, and first place in Group C.
Canada’s run at the World Cup had come to an abrupt halt. With the exception of Sweeney hitting the woodwork against France, Canada didn’t come close to scoring a goal as they lacked pace and quality up front. The back was solid, only conceding 5 goals in 3 matches. Keepers Tino Lettieri and Paul Dolan were excellent between the sticks. But without goals, you can’t win games. And Canada couldn’t score in a Mexican brothel in this tournament.
Some players did benefit from the World Cup experience. Defender Randy Samuel joined Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven following the tournament. Forward Igor Vrablic went on to play for Greek side Olympiacos for 2 seasons. And defender Randy Ragan joined Swiss club FC La Chaux-Des-Fonds.
Canada struggled to regain their form since 1986. To this day, 1986 is the only time Canada qualified for the World Cup. However there have been bright spots. Before the 1994 World Cup, Canada played Brazil in a friendly in Edmonton, in what was Brazil’s final tune up before the 94 World Cup. Canada played Brazil to a 1-1 draw, thanks to a goal from Eddy Berdusco.
In 2000, Canada won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, upsetting Colombia 2-0 in the final. But this brief bit of success has not translated into trips to the World Cup. Canada is attempting to reach the 2014 World Cup and are currently in second place in Group C of the third round in qualifying. If they can maintain that position or move up to first, Canada will advance to the fourth and final round of World Cup qualifying.
There are still memories of Canada’s lone appearance in the World Cup back in 1986. Sadly there are no goals to celebrate that appearance.
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