For thirty-six years, the FIFA World Cup was out of reach for Canada. It was only this March that the men’s team finally qualified for the World Cup, ending a drought that went as far back as 1986. In that time, only once did Canada come even close to reaching a World Cup. This is the story of Canada’s 1994 qualification campaign – the one that got away.
After the heroics against Honduras in St. John’s Newfoundland, things started to go wrong for the Canadians quickly. They lost all three games at the 1986 World Cup, and after the tournament, veterans Bob Lenarduzzi, Bruce Wilson, and Tino Lettieri all retired from international football. To make matters worse, David Norman, Hector Marinaro, Chris Chueden, and star striker Igor Vrablic were all banned from the team on account of being found guilty of match-fixing.
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Head coach Tony Waiters shortly afterwards left Canada and after the high of 1985, and the team now lacked leadership. Young talent including the best player Canada had at the time and the manager that led them to soccer’s biggest stage was gone. Canada began their qualification campaign for World Cup 1990 in 1988 against lowly Guatemala, but a 1-0 defeat away from home, combined with a 3-2 Canada win in Burnaby meant that Guatemala won the tie on away goals, eliminating Canada from the World Cup after just two games.
There was reason to be cheerful in 1994, however. The World Cup was being hosted in the United States, meaning that including the hosts, three potential CONCACAF teams could qualify for the World Cup, and Canada would have one less team to worry about in qualification. What’s more is that with World Cup so close to home, there was real potential to grow the sport with Canadians being able to watch their team play in a World Cup within just half a day or so driving from their home.
World Cup 1994 was set to be the springboard to launch soccer in the United States, and Canada has the chance to also capitalize if they could make it there. In their squad was talented 1986, with veterans like defender Randy Samuel, midfielder Mike Sweeney, and forward Carl Valentine. Also in the squad were English premier league goalkeeper Craig Forrest, fellow Ipswich teammate Frank Yallop, and midfielders Lyndon Hooper and Nick Dasovic. Led by Bob Lenarduzzi, this Canadian side was ready to take on the best of CONCACAF.
To get go the 1994 World Cup, Canada would have to go through a four-team second round (Canada received a bye in the first round) qualifying round stage group to qualify for a final group stage where, if they finished in the top two, they would automatically qualify for USA 94. If they finished second in the final group, then they would face the winner of the Oceania Football Confederation qualification tournament, and should they overcome that hurdle, they would play a final playoff against a South American side. If they won that, it would mean they qualified.
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With two daunting playoff ties to negotiate, Canada was very much hopeful of topping the final group, but first, they has to play in their initial second-round group stage, their opponents would be El Salvador, Jamaica and Bermuda. Seven points (back when a win equalled two points) from six games was enough to see Les Rouge reach the final round, where they would face El Salvador once again, Honduras, and CONCACAF powerhouse Mexico.
Canada made a great start to their final group campaign, earning a point in Tegucigalpa against Honduras and then recording back to back wins at home in Burnaby against their Central American foes El Salvador and Honduras, to get five point’s out of a possible six, halfway through their campaign to top their group. But the true test was yet to come. Canada’s next game was away to Mexico at the Azteca, one of the most intimidating venues in the world to play soccer, where they would be jeered by 103,000 Mexican fans.
Mexico gave Canada a reality check, demolishing the Canadians 4-0 to overtake them in the table. Canada would rebound to beat El Salvador in San Salvador, thanks to goals from John Catliff and Domenic Mobilio in a 2-1 win away from home, setting up a winner takes all match against Mexico in Toronto on May 9th, 1993. Win and Canada were in the World Cup.
Just seventeen minutes in, a ball into the Mexican box caused pandemonium, and in the confusion Alex Bunbury was able to pounce, heading the ball past the Mexican goalkeeper to send the capacity crowd at Toronto’s varsity stadium wild. As it stood, Canada was in the World Cup. Unfortunately for Canada, legendary Mexican striker Hugo Sánchez fired home the equalizer twenty minutes later, meaning that Canada needed to score again. Ultimately it wasn’t to be as Francisco Javier Cruz gave Mexico the lead with just six minutes left, and El Tri held on to win the group and quality automatically for the World Cup. Canada at least knew that they still had the insurance policy of the playoffs to keep their USA 94 dream alive.
After crowds of roughly 6,000 in Burnaby and 12,000 in Toronto, a bumper crowd of 30,000 turned up at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on the 31st of July 1993 to see Canada take on Australia in the first of a two-legged playoff tie. Canada made a fantastic start, signalling their intent with Bunbury hitting the crossbar after five minutes, and then in the seventeenth minute. Australian goalkeeper Robert Zabica took out Dale Mitchell just outside the box and referee Arturo Brizio Carter showed Zabica a red card. But despite the fast start and man advantage, Australia didn’t back down.
Just before halftime, an Australian cross into the box was, unfortunately, headed past goalkeeper Craig Forrest by Canadian defender Nick Dasovic to give the Socceroos a surprising lead going into halftime. Five minutes into the second half, a corner from Canada pin-balled in the box into the path of Mark Watson, who equalized from close range to make it 1-1 after fifty minutes.
Just seven minutes later, Canada bombarded the Australian net with multiple shots on goal before the ball eventually fell to Domenic Mobilio, who sent the Edmonton crowd wild by making it 2-1. Playing with the lead, Canada wasn’t able to add to their advantage, but still came away with a 2-1 win, meaning that if they avoided defeat in Sydney, they would be one tie away from the World Cup.
The second leg in Sydney was on the 15th of August 1993 and if Canada avoided defeat, they would have a tie against a struggling Argentina squad to decide their World Cup fate. In front of a 26,000 crowd, the Aussies dominated the first half with Canada keeper Craig Forrest being called into action many times to keep the Canucks in the game. Finally, on the stroke of halftime, Australian Frank Farina opened the scoring with an overhead kick to give Australia the lead going into halftime.
Canada would respond through a great strike from Lyndon Hooper, with his edge-of-the-box shot being too hot to handle for Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer to make it 1-1 after fifty-four minutes, and once again, Canada was in the driver’s seat. Canada would concede again, however, with Mehmet Duraković’s looping header getting past Forrest to make to level the tie with just thirteen minutes left. The game finished 2-1 for Australia, and after a goalless extra time, the tie would require penalties.
First up was Australia’s Paul Wade who sent Forrest the wrong way, followed by Canada’s Dale Mitchell who made the shootout score 1-1. Aurelio Vidmar ensured that Canada was two-for-two, and next up for Canada was Alex Bunbury. His strike to the bottom left corner was saved by Schwarzer, giving the advantage to Australia. Alex Tobin cranked up the pressure by making the shootout score 3-1, putting the onus on Canada’s Mike Sweeney to respond. Despite diving, the wrong way, Schwarzer’s outstretched hand was enough to stop Sweeny’s penalty going down the middle, meaning Australia was one kick away from eliminating Canada. Up stepped the goalscorer from earlier, Frank Farina. Farina’s penalty left Forrest with no chance as he made the penalty score 4-1 Australia, breaking the hearts of the Canadians.
Australia went on to lose to Diego Maradona’s Argentina 2-1 over two legs, but for Canada, having had two pathways and glorious opportunities to qualify for the World Cup, it was still a campaign of what might’ve been. The 1994 World Cup transformed the popularity of soccer in the U.S and is a big part of why the sport is where it is today in America. Whilst the impact may not have been the same, a World Cup so close to home with the chance to go and travel to games by car, bus, or train could’ve helped to ignite the Canadian soccer revolution perhaps a decade earlier.
It wasn’t to be, however, for the team of 1993, who gave Canada its best World Cup campaign in the thirty-six years between 1986 and 2022, and there’s no close second. What’s more, for 1986 veteran players like Dale Mitchell, Carl Valentine, and Mike Sweeney, it was the end of the road for their international careers. To give this team some sort of closure though, players like Craig Forrest, Mark Watson and Nick Dasovic were part of the Canada team that would be CONCACAF champions in 2000.
After the heroic success of the Qatar 2022 qualification campaign, the ghosts of 1993 have been well and truly laid to rest.
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