When Canada takes the field in Costa Rica on March 24th, they’ll have the chance to do something they haven’t done in almost thirty-seven years, qualify for FIFA World Cup.
It’s been a long time coming, and after an impressive campaign up this point, there is almost a sense of inevitability about Canada securing their ticket to Qatar for this winter’s festival of Soccer. So what was it like the last time Canada qualified? To know the answer to that we have to go back to the 14th September 1985 at King George V Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland, when Canada faced Honduras.
The path to qualification for the 1986 World Cup was a difficult one. In a time where only twenty-four spots were up for grabs, only two were allocated to CONCACAF, and with Mexico hosting the tournament, it meant they qualified automatically reducing that number to just one. The qualification format worked as followed; a preliminary round of seventeen teams, Guatemala received a bye and the remaining sixteen teams were paired up in a home and away knockout round.
Canada was drawn against Jamaica, but after they withdrew, the Canadians went through to the next round. At this point, qualification for the World Cup was branded as the CONCACAF Championship, a precursor to the GOLD Cup. Canada and the other eight remaining CONCACAF teams were drawn into three groups of three, with the group winners advancing to a final group stage. Canada was drawn against Guatemala and Haiti. From their four games, three wins and a draw were enough to see Canada advance to the next round by a two-point margin (in 1985 a win in soccer was worth two points) and enter the final qualifying stage.
To reach Mexico in 1986, Canada would have to beat out Costa Rica and Honduras. Both Costa Rica and Honduras were undefeated up until this point in the competition. Honduras was CONCACAF Championship winner in 1981, made the World Cup in 1982 and were GOLD cup finalists in 1991. Meanwhile, Costa Rica reached the summer Olympics in both 1980 and 1984 and reached the World Cup in 1990, where they shocked the world by reaching the last sixteen.
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If Canada was to reach Mexico, they would have to get past tough opposition. But Canada themselves were strong, they were led by Englishman Tony Waiters, who just six years earlier had guided Vancouver Whitecaps to an NASL championship and had taken Canada to the quarterfinals of the 1984 summer Olympics.
In their opening game, Paul James rescued a draw for Canada against Costa Rica at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium, meaning going into their second game at Honduras’ Estadio Tiburcio Carías Andino, Canada in all likelihood needed to win. In front of a hostile crowd, George Pakos gave Canada the lead with just over half an hour to go and they held on for their first-ever win against Honduras. Canada followed that result up with a 0-0 draw in Costa Rica, giving them a total of five points, two points ahead of Honduras, leaving them needing just a draw in their final game to secure World Cup qualification.
The most important game in Canadian Men’s National Team history was set to be played at King George V Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland. King George V Park was opened in 1925 and as of 2022, it is the oldest surviving soccer-specific stadium in North America and was a host venue for the upcoming 1987 FIFA U-16 World Cup. The game was a sell-out with 13,000 fans amassing for the match, Honduran fans were also present, although some had made the unfortunate mixup of going to Saint John, New Brunswick.
Fourteen minutes into the game, Canada won a corner. West Bromwich Albion striker and Canada debutant Carl Valentine’s out-swinging corner was met by defender Ian Bridge, he headed the ball into the ground where it was eventually met by striker George Pakos, who from close range blasted the ball into the back of the net, sparking scenes of jubilation amongst the St. John’s crowd. Canada took a 1-0 lead into halftime and was only forty-five minutes away from their first World Cup. But Honduras wasn’t done.
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Just four minutes into the second half, Honduras worked the ball well out wide, before getting the ball to the feet of Porfirio Armando Betancourt and the striker showed fantastic close control to work a shot for himself, and fire the ball passed Tino Lettieri to make it 1-1. Canada’s World Cup aspirations were in the balance at this point, another Honduras goal would’ve been catastrophic which made it vital that Canada scored next. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happened. With thirty minutes left on the clock, in came another corner from Valentine, the ball was flicked on at the front post into the path of striker Igor Vrablic who tapped the ball home to make it Canada two, Honduras one.
The Canadians held out to win the game 2-1, sparking scenes of wild jubilation and prompting a pitch invasion from the St. John’s crowd who were incredibly vocal for the duration of the game. Vrablic was awarded as the game’s MVP. Shortly afterwards, Canada captain Bruce Wilson proudly raised the CONCACAF Championship Cup, marking the first time Canada had been continental champions.
It’s a moment that is beloved in Canadian soccer history and has lived long in the memory. Now, it’s been almost thirty-seven years since that win against Honduras and if the current generation wants to emulate the 1985 team, they only need a draw away to Cost-Rica. Failing, they’ll have chances to secure a place in Qatar against either Jamaica at home or away to Panama. But after decades upon decades of waiting, we’re all eager to see Les Rouges back on the world’s biggest stage and bring back the spirit of 1985!
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