In 2021, Canada achieved something that they hadn’t achieved in a generation – reaching the final qualification stage of World Cup CONCACAF qualification. The 1997 team was a team full of veterans, full of players who not only featured in the heartbreaking 1993 campaign, but even had a few survivors from the 1986 World Cup. It was the last chance for many players who had shown they had talent and belonged in CONCACAF’s biggest stage, this is the story of Canada’s World Cup 1998 qualification campaign, the end of an era.
To understand the 1998 team, we need to understand the players involved. From the 1986 World Cup squad, Canada still had; defender Colin Miller – who applied his trade in Scotlands top tier, and goalkeeper Paul Dolan – who started the game against France in 1986. Alongside them were plenty of other Canada veterans who were involved in the 1993 campaign in which Canada was a game away from making the tournament. This included striker Alex Bunbury who scored five goals in 1993 qualification, Frank Yallop – a defender with plenty of English Premier League experience, and midfielder Lyndon Hooper. All of these players would go on to be inducted into the Canadian Soccer hall of fame, and alongside players like Craig Forrest, Mark Watson, and Nick Dasovic, this was an experienced and talented Canadian team who knew they had a great chance to reach France in 1998, especially with CONCACAF now having three qualification spots
It wouldn’t be easy. With CONCACAF featuring always strong Mexico, and a USA that was starting to embrace soccer with the establishment of Major League Soccer, there was a lot of competition with the likes of Jamaica and Costa Rica for that last spot and with no intercontinental playoff, there would be no lifeline like in 1993.
But firstly, Canada had to negotiate their initial third-round qualification campaign in order to qualify for the infamous CONCACF final qualification stage. Les Rouge were drawn against Cuba, El Salvador, and Panama – a tough-sounding draw in 2022 but a more manageable task in 1996. Canada, led by manager and veteran of World Cup 1986 Bob Lenarduzzi, made a great start to their World Cup campaign beating Panama 3-1 in Edmonton! From then, the team didn’t look back as they topped their Third Round qualifying group with sixteen points out of a possible eighteen, with the only hiccup being a draw in Panama. In their six games, Canada scored ten and conceded just one with Alex Burnaby leading the way with three goals! But going into the final qualification round, the squad now knew that the hard work was only truly beginning but there was a lot of optimism amongst the Canadian side that they would qualify!
El Salvador advanced alongside Canada, and making up the other four spots were Mexico, the USA, Costa Rica and Jamaica. We are all familiar with CONCACAF’s infamous final round now, but the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign was the first time the format was implemented. With three spots up for grabs and a highly competitive field, Canada knew they had to make a fast start. Unfortunately the draw was as unkind as it could possibly be, with Canada’s first two fixtures being drawn as Mexico away and then the USA away. In front of a crowd of 95,000, The Canucks failed to impress as Mexico easily won 4-0, which was followed up by a 3-0 defeat to the Americans in California. Canada then had a chance to rebound against El Salvador at home next, a team they had taken six points off in the previous round. However, the best they could do in Burnaby’s Swangaurd stadium was a 0-0 draw, three games, zero goals, two defeats and just one point, Canada had made a disastrous start!
After yet another 0-0 draw at home against Jamaica, Canada went into their next game against Costa Rica knowing they simply had to win. Once again playing in Edmonton, striker Eddy Berdusco found himself at the right spot to convert a right-sided cross into the far post to give Canada a 1-0 lead which they held on to. After a disappointing start, Canada suddenly had five points from three games, and was now back in contention, level on points with Jamaica and the USA who were also on five points, and with Canada’s next game being in Jamaica, they had a golden opportunity to increase their World Cup hopes!
This is the point however where it all went completely wrong. Canada played well in the hot Kingston heat, but a goal from Deon Burton was enough to give Jamaica a win and crucially, the head-to-head tie break should it be needed. Canada then traveled to El Salvador, where in the previous round they had won 2-0 so there was a belief they could win. In a game in which Canada players and staff had to deal with fans throwing urine bags, batteries, and even soiled diapers at them, the Canadians dramatically fell to a 4-1 loss, while it wasn’t officially impossible, morale and belief were low in the camp heading into the next game against Mexico.
The home game against Mexico was arguably Canada’s finest performance of the campaign! Mexico took an early lead through Enrique Alfaro, but Canada responded through Carlo Corazzin and Alex Bunbury to give Canada a stunning lead on a snowy day in Edmonton! Canada were just five minutes away from their first win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1976, but with time winding down, Carlos Hermosillo bundled the ball into the net from close range to deny Canada a famous win, and officially eliminate them from World Cup qualification. After coming agonisingly close in 1993, this time round Canada – despite having a good team on paper, where nowhere near qualifying. This misery was compounded with a 3-0 loss at home to the States, a game which seen the Americans celebrate qualifying for the World Cup on Canadian soil, and then a uninspiring 3-1 loss away to Costa Rica to close out the group.
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Before 2021, this was the last time Canada had reached the CONCACAF final qualifying round and it wasn’t pretty. Despite being confident going in that they could make it, Canada finished bottom of the group with just one win and six total points. They only scored five goals – two coming from Alex Bunbury and conceded a humiliating twenty goals in just ten games. After a strong showing for 1993 qualification, this campaign marked the end of an era for an aging squad. Manager Bob Lenarduzzi resigned after the campaign, and after him, players; Colin Miller, Paul Dolan, Geoff Aunger, Frank Yallop, John Limniatis, Domenic Mobilio all retired from international soccer, and they would be joined by Canada’s top goalscorer in both the 1994 and 1998 qualifying campaigns – Alex Bunbury.
It was truly the end of an era for this team, while it was hardly a vintage squad, for an entire generation 1997 represented the last time Canada had genuine optimism going into a World Cup campaign, it may not have ended well then, but many players from then would at least have silver lining of winning the 2000 CONCACAF GOLD Cup, and can now sit back and watch as their the current generation of today achieve things in Soccer that could only be dreamt about twenty-five years ago.
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