On September 14th, 1985, Canada defeated Honduras 2-1 in St John’s Newfoundland. Not only winning the CONCACAF Championship, but they also secured their place in the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico with that historic win. Going into the 1986 World Cup, they had a talented squad with an average age of just over twenty-five years old and multiple players who were applying their trade for European teams. But just one year on from that famous day in Newfoundland, and only three months after their World Cup campaign ended, Canadian soccer was rocked by a scandal that set the tone for over three decades of World Cup qualification failure. This is the story of the day that killed Canadian soccer.
Our story revolves around five Canadian international players; Paul James, David Norman, Hector Marinaro, Chris Chueden and Igor Vrablic. Chueden was just twenty-five and was carving out a promising career for himself in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) with the Cleveland Force and this was also the path taken by Marinaro, who was playing for the MISL’s Minnesota Strikers. After omission from the World Cup squad, both Marinaro and Chueden were called up for the next set of international games. The other three players were well known from the Mexico 86 squad. Paul James had over thirty international appearances under his belt and had appeared in both the 1984 Olympics and 1986 World Cup for Canada, he scored a crucial goal away in Costa Rica which proved to be vital for Canada in their 1986 World Cup qualifying campaign, at just twenty-two, he was set to become a staple in the Canadian international team.
David Norman was a defensive midfielder who just like James appeared at both the 1984 and 86 tournaments, playing in all of Canada’s games in Mexico. Just like James he was young, just twenty-one years old. The final player in question was Canadian soccer’s brightest star, Igor Vrablic. Vrablic was just a teenager when he burst onto the scene in 1985 with seven goals for Canada in the calendar year. He scored important goals, bagging a brace in a 2-0 win over The United States and also found the net three times in Canada’s World Cup qualifying campaign. His most memorable effort came in the historic game against Honduras, where he scored the winning goal and sent the Canadians to soccer’s biggest stage. Just twenty-one years old, Vrablic was already playing in Europe, and there was no telling what his ceiling was.
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After the World Cup, all five players were selected for Canada to take part in the Merlion Cup. The Merlion Cup was an annual tournament held in Singapore, the 1986 edition featured a group stage format with the top four teams advancing to the semi-finals. Canada would be facing against the hosts Singapore, China, North Korea, an Indonesia XI and a Malaysia XI. Les Rouges started the competition strongly, they finished third in the group stage and scored ten goals in the process, with Vrablic scoring four goals, and Chueden scoring his first goal for Canada against the Indonesia XI.
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This set up a semi-final tie against North Korea, and this is where the story really begins. Canada was favoured to win the tournament, and on paper, they would be favoured to win against the North Koreans, but that wasn’t the case. Goals from Yun Jong-su and Kim Jong-Man sealed a 2-0 win, surprisingly eliminating Canada from the tournament. In the build-up of the semi-final, James, Norman, Marinaro, Chueden and Vrablic were playing cards and were approached by bookmakers, who offered the players a $100,000 bribe ($225,620 adjusted for inflation) to throw the game against North Korea, which the players accepted.
There was no going back, five players for Canada’s international soccer team had partaken in match-fixing. But the ethics of the situation eventually got the better of one of the five. James couldn’t go through with it, he gave his share of the bribe to the other four and confessed to fellow teammate Randy Regan. Regan was understandably nervous about the delicate and outright illegal situation. He passed the information onto Bruce Wilson, the recently retired captain of the Mexico 86 team. Wilson was no longer in the dressing room and wasn’t abound to any locker room loyalty or team chemistry dilemmas. He informed Canada manager Tony Waiters and the news spread all the way to the top. The match-fixing scandal was now public.
In November 1987, David Norman, Igor Vrabic, Chris Chueden and Hector Marinaro were all charged by the RCMP for accepting the bribes and for bringing money into Canada that was obtained through criminal activity. Two bookmakers in Singapore were arrested for their part in the scandal, but for the four players in question, the charges were dropped in December 1988 because the incident happened in Singapore, where the Canadian court had no jurisdiction.
Despite the four players not facing criminal charges, that didn’t mean they weren’t punished. In May 1990, Vrablic, Norman, Marinaro and Chueden were given a year-long ban from playing soccer, which FIFA would confirm applied all across the globe. Although Marinaro did use his career in the MISL as a loophole to continue playing, the scandal had done irreparable damage to their careers and reputations. Norman wouldn’t play for Canada again until 1992 and retired from international football just two years later, he played out the rest of his career with the Vancouver 86ers. Hector Marinaro didn’t make out a successful career in the traditional sense but did become a legend of the indoor game scoring over a thousand goals. He made one more appearance for Canada in 1995, finishing his international career with just six appearances and no goals.
Chris Chueden never played professional soccer again, in either an indoor or outdoor setting, playing his last game in 1989 at the age of just twenty-eight. The biggest casualty talent-wise though was for Igor Vrablic. Of the players who took the bribe, he was the one who needed the money the least. Marinaro, Norman and Chueden were playing in North America at the time when professional soccer was a niche and it was difficult to carve out a successful career compared to in Europe.
Vrablic had just signed for Olympiacos, the biggest team in Greece and a prestigious European team. At the time of the scandal, he had amassed twelve goals for Canada in just two years between 1984-1986, making him at the time Canada’s top goalscorer at just twenty-one. He never played for Canada again, and by 1991, was no longer playing professional soccer. By just the age of twenty-six, the most talented and promising Canadian soccer player of his generation had hung up his boots.
So where did this leave Canada? In 1988, Canada’s 1990 World Cup campaign ended before it really began, losing to lowly Guatemala in the first round of qualifying. They came close to making World Cup 1994 hosted in the U.S., needing a win over Mexico at home to reach the tournament but they lost 2-1 and ultimately failed to make it. Players like Vrablic and Norman were important pieces for Canada and could’ve made the difference in that pivotal game against Mexico.
This would be the closest Canada would get to reaching a World Cup until the 2022 qualifying campaign. Besides the outlier of winning the 2000 GOLD cup, Canada effectively spent the best part of 1986-2021 in the soccer doldrums. Canada even went seventeen years without having a professional soccer league. In 1987 the Canadian Soccer League was formed, but by 1992, the league had folded and it wouldn’t be replaced until the Canadian Premier League began to play in 2019.
Canadian soccer was full of hope and momentum thanks to Mexico 86, but in part because of a $100,000 bribe, the progression of the game was set back decades. September 4th, 1986, is a day that will live in Canadian soccer infamy.
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