Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Canada’s best soccer team – ever

The 1986 Canadian World Cup soccer team on June 9, 1986. In back from left are Bruce Wilson; Ian Bridge; Dale Mitchell; Randy Samuel; Bob Lenarduzzi; and Gerry Gray; while in front from left are Carl Valentine; Dave Norman; Tino Lettieri; Randy Ragan; and Paul James.

The 1986 Canadian World Cup soccer team on June 2, 1986. In back from left are Bob Lenarduzzi; Ian Bridge; Paul Dolan; Igor Vrablic; Randy Samuel; and Randy Ragan; while in front from left are Dave Norman; Bruce Wilson; Carl Valentine; Paul James; and Mike Sweeney.
It is so easy to dismiss the past. Today, with professional soccer teams in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal in the best soccer league in North America, It is easy to forget that no matter what they achieve, to this day only one Canadian men’s soccer team has qualified for the World Cup: the 1986 team.

Canadian Goalkeeper Tino Lettieri makes a save.
Check out the CBC Sportsweekend sign behind him.

They seemed to be the only broadcaster of Team
Canada games.
Tino Lettieri, my favourite
soccer player ever
Over the years much has been made about the fact they did not even score a goal in the World Cup, held in Mexico in 1986. The answer to those critics is easy: what have you done? Until another team qualifies for the world’s most elite soccer tournament, everyone is second best. Anyone who criticizes that team really should criticize everyone who came after them for failing to build on their groundbreaking victory.

We are the champions
I remember that team well, especially their goalie the catlike Tino Lettieri (He used to have a stuffed parrot for good luck by his net). Canada benefitted from the fact we had various professional leagues, be it the North American Soccer League, and later the Canadian Soccer League, as well as indoor leagues and other incarnations of pro soccer. It gave players the competition they needed to develop. Our growth was retarded without any such league until the A-League and United Soccer League came along, and finally Major League Soccer.

That qualification in 1985 was an amazing run.

In the first round, Canada was in Group 2 along with Guatemala and Haiti. They opened on April 13, 1985 in Victoria with a 2-0 win over Haiti. Igor Vrablic and Mike Sweeney scored for Canada. They followed that up a week later on April 20 with a 2-1 win over Guatemala in Victoria, as Dale Mitchell had both goals. They travelled to Guatemala City where they tied the host team 1-1 on May 5 as Mitchell scored his third goal of the tournament. Canada closed out the first round with a 2-0 win in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on May 8 as Vrablic and Mitchell scored. The result gave Canada seven out of a possible eight points and first place in the group. They advanced to the final round against Costa Rica and Honduras.

The final round was an epic battle, waged Saturdays on CBC Sportsweekend. Canada opened at Varsity Stadium in Toronto with a 1-1 draw against Costa Rica on August 17. Paul James scored the lone Canadian goal. Their next game was a 1-0 victory over Honduras on August 25 in Tegucigalpa (I thank the CBC's Steve Armitage for teaching me how to pronounce that). George Pakos scored the Canadian goal. On September 1, Canada  played Costa Rica to a scoreless draw in San Jose. That meant they had to beat Honduras to claim the CONCACAF championship and qualify for the World Cup. With the teams tied 1-1, on the strength of another goal by Pakos, Vrablic scored in front of 3,000 fans at King George V Park in St. John's, Newfoundland, to win the game 2-1. Canada had won its first CONCACAF championship, and the only one in our history. The tournament was discontinued in 1989, replaced by the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

I remember that goal and the end of the game. Most of all, I remember the trophy, the first one I had ever seen with ribbons tied to it. And I remember the captains, most notably Bob Lenarduzzi, hoisting that trophy in front of the home fans. It was incredible.

It should be noted Canada did not have to contend with Mexico, a traditional power and winner of the most CONCACAF championships along with Costa Rica. Mexico hosted the 1986 World Cup and, as host, was an automatic qualifier. Even so, when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994, it did not make it easier for Canada to qualify.

The reality of soccer in Canada
Back then, in the days before TSN and Sportsnet, the Canadian team’s games were broadcast on CBC Sportsweekend. I used to wait for those games and watch them closely. My interest in soccer came early in life. I recall watching the 1982 World Cup with my Dad, and Germany coming from behind to beat France in the semi-final to advance to the final. In 1986, I watched the Germans play in Brooks where we were visiting for a wedding. Obviously, the Germans were our team because that’s where my family came from. Until Canada returns to the World Cup, I will continue to sport the Black, Red and Gold of the Allemania.

That’s why 1986 was so cool. Canada had made it. With names like Lettieri, Lenarduzzi, Bridge, and Valentine, we qualified for the world’s toughest tournament – without even losing a game.

1 comment:

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