This article was originally published on Tale of Two Halves by Sam Bettany (@bettany_sam)
As confirmed recently, a bid by the US, Mexico and Canada to joint-host the FIFA World Cup in 2026 was successful ahead of a rival bid from Morocco. It is a historic moment for all involved, as FIFA were choosing their first World Cup hosts since the highly controversial and corrupt picks of Russia and Qatar under Sepp Blatter. For the US, it will be the second time hosting the World Cup having hosted the tournament back in 1994 and attracting record attendances of over 3.5 million spectators. Mexico have even more experience, having hosted the tournament in both 1970 and 1986 with the iconic Estadio Azteca cramming over 100,000 spectators for games. For Canada, however, the international footballing hiatus in the men’s national team has seen them in the shadows of their fellow America neighbours for decades.
The women’s national team has had some global success, including two bronze medals at the Olympics, two CONCACAF Championships and were able to host the Women’s World Cup in 2015. But for the men’s side, their only success outside two CONCACAF Championships was a 1904 Olympic Gold Medal, only having to win two games in a time which the sport was played so differently with little competition. Having never hosted a men’s World Cup, Canada will be able to automatically qualify and host ten games in their nation alongside Mexico, whilst the US will hold most of the games. It will be a huge boost for the North American nation looking fulfil the huge potential it has at producing players and succeeding in the sport. When that time comes, it will be exactly 40 years on from when Canada first made people take notice of the sport when they qualified for Mexico ’86.
After two terrible years of friendly matches in 1983 and 1984, which saw the Canadian national team win just one of 13 games, a host of fixtures were arranged in preparation for the FIFA World Cup qualification matches in April 1985. Between March 10 and April 4, the Canucks played seven friendlies against opponents Jamaica, Costa Rica and USA, only losing one game. The number of matches played saw an improvement and momentum built as Canada went onto win five of their eight qualification matches against Haiti, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras. This meant they would take the only spot in the CONCACAF World Cup continental zone because Mexico were already hosting, with the CONCACAF Championship acting as qualification to the World Cup that year. Gaining a place in Pot 3 of the World Cup Group draw, Canada was picked alongside European teams France, Soviet Union and Hungary in Group C.
With the Hungarians defeating El Salvador 10-1 at the previous World Cup, Canadian coach at the time Tony Waiters wanted to avoid such an embarrassment and opted to train his side to be conservative and compact. Having never been to a World Cup before, the former England goalkeeper focused on fitness in their training camp in Colorado ahead of the World Cup in 1986 to at least match the opponents physically. This was even more important as four of the selected squad were without a club, highlighting the limited choice of options to take to such a tournament. Getting the players use to playing in the climate was another big objective as a lot of the players were playing domestically for indoor soccer clubs in the US.
Waiters analysed and explained to his players the weaknesses of the French team through video footage in an attempt to humanise the situation of facing such an opponent and that the Canadians could exploit certain weaknesses. A mismatch on paper, and seemingly a mismatch in the eyes of Mexican fans, who were holding up fingers in the crowd to indicate a huge scoreline in favour of France. These Maple Leaf representatives were sharing the pitch with Jean-Pierre Papin, Michel Platini and Dominique Rocheteau but held their own for the majority of a match which was expected to go vastly one-way. Canadian players Branko Segota and Bob Lenarduzzi were creating chances going forward and applied some pressure on the goal of Les Bleus, however, the quality of Papin shone through, scoring late on to seal a narrow 1-0 win. Despite defeat, this result looked to give the Canadians a huge boost going into their next game.
In the other game of the group, Hungary had been demolished 6-0 by the Soviet Union, which unfortunately seem to negatively affect the Canadian players who were now going into only their second World Cup game as slight favourites. Some signs of complacency that the same approach against France would seal a victory for the Canucks backfired, as an early goal from Marton Esterhazy and second half goal from Lajos Detari sealed a 2-0 win for a redeemed Hungarian side. Canada was now without a win, without a goal and without a point and knowing a huge opportunity had been missed heading into their final game of the group against the impressive Soviet Union. Lead out by captain Bruce Wilson for one last time in Mexico, Canada held the Soviet Union goalless in the first half, showing heart and desire in a game which would not affect qualification from the group for them.
Ballon D’or winner Oleh Blokhin and Oleksandr Zavarov were too much to handle for the Canadian side in the second half and their goals sealed back-to-back 2-0 defeats for Canada in their final and still most recent match at a World Cup. Whilst results on the field did not provide any shocks, the affect of Canada making the World Cup had a big impact for the years to come. One of Canada’s top players in their history, Jason de Vos, was inspired by the resilient and determined performances of the national team in 1986. Manchester-born de Vos, like a lot of the players, was not a home-grown Canadian playing for the national team. Many players then and still today are born in Europe and Central America before earning citizenship or offered to play for the Maple Leafs.
But not producing enough of their own could well be the continual downfall of Canada ever since. Talented players like veteran Atiba Hutchinson will unfortunately not be able to feature as a player at the 2026 World Cup. But maybe Cyle Larin, who also plays at Turkish side Besiktas, could feature along with hot prospect Liam Millar who is developing quickly at an exciting Liverpool team. Alphonso Davies is still only 17 and has scored three times for the senior national team, and in the bid for the World Cup was invited on stage to share his dream. With more young exciting players playing at a good level both domestically and nationally, we may see a gradual rise in Canada’s FIFA ranking as they look to make huge strides in the footballing world in time for 2026. With eight years to start preparations, the Canadian Soccer Association has a big role in taking their nation to the next level and aiming for better results than the team got back in 1986.