San Jose, Costa Rica, is a long way from St. John’s, but the two could be forever intertwined if Canada beats the Costa Ricans on Thursday to secure World Cup qualification.
The only other time Canada made it to the men’s soccer showcase was Mexico 1986, thanks to a win over Honduras in the final of the 1985 CONCACAF Championship.
At the time, both Canadian and Honduran players wondered what they were doing on the Rock, in the modest surroundings of King George V Park, about 4,900 kilometres northeast of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
“We had thought, ‘What the heck is the Canadian Soccer Association doing putting this biggest game Canada’s ever played – in Newfoundland?’” captain Bruce Wilson said. “It was an outside park, to start with.
“Before the game, we got there and we were training and preparing and were going, ‘Where are we?’ And we couldn’t believe it, to be honest.”
But there was method to the madness.
Fellow defender Bob Lenarduzzi credits then-coach Tony Waiters and CSA president Jim Fleming for following other CONCACAF countries in maximizing the benefits of playing at home.
Just getting to St. John’s was a challenge. Some Honduran fans never made it, landing mistakenly in Saint John, where they had to watch the game on TV.
And the locals made the Canadian team feel like kings.
“From the time we got there to the time we had won the game and celebrated that night and left the next day, the pride of the Newfoundlanders was evident,” Lenarduzzi said.
Just how many people were in King George V Park that afternoon is unclear. While Canada Soccer listed the crowd at 7,500 and the CBC called it “7,500-plus, the Canadian Encyclopedia has it at a more robust 13,000.
Whatever the number, they were loud and proud.
Wilson, now 70, says the venue was packed with flag-waving supporters 90 minutes before kickoff.
“It wasn’t a very big crowd at the end of the day, but I’m going to tell you what, when we went out on the field, it was 100 per cent Canadian and they actually put us ahead a goal before the game began,” Wilson said. “It was a fantastic atmosphere.”
“The other team had no idea where they were,” he added. “And we really prospered.”
Canada went into the game needing a tie or win to qualify.
“Canada’s oldest city will act as host for its most important soccer game,” the CBC’s Steve Armitage intoned prior to kickoff.
”[Newfoundland’s] people and buildings have weathered many an Atlantic storm and survived them all,” he added. “Now, the warm hospitality and generosity that makes Newfoundlanders so special will be applied to Team Canada as the final steps in the long march to Mexico are taken.”
It was a cloudy 11 C at kickoff. The field looked like a grass jigsaw with a variety of colours and coverage.
George Pakos put Canada ahead in the 16th minute on a scrappy play from a Carl Valentine corner. Ian Bridge acrobatically got his head to the ball and it careened off a defender into the path of an opportunistic Pakos, who swept it in with his right foot.
A 21-year-old Randy Samuel came to Canada’s rescue later in the half when Wilson’s attempt at a clearing header went over goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s head and toward the open Canadian goal. But Samuel, who went on to earn 82 caps for Canada, got back in time to clear the ball to safety.
Armando Betancourt tied it up in the 49th, after a Honduran teammate beat two Canadians on the flank and sent the ball into the penalty box. Betancourt, who died last July because of reported COVID-19 complications at the age of 63, craftily shielded the ball, pivoted and beat Lettieri with a left-footed shot from close range.
“I think the hearts started to flutter a bit when they equalized,” Lenarduzzi said.
Igor Vrablic sealed the deal in the 61st minute off another Valentine corner. The ball was flicked on from the near post to Vrablic, who was Johnny-on-the-spot. The 20-year-old outmuscled a defender to swing a leg and redirect the ball in from the doorstep.
Fans poured onto the field to celebrate at the final whistle.
“A great team effort by Canada and they didn’t sneak in on the back door,” CBC colour commentator Graham Leggat said. “They beat the defending champions of CONCACAF 2-1 here in St. John’s. … A magnificent performance.”
“Now it will be Canada’s turn,” Armitage added. “The moment that soccer fans right across the country have waited for so many years – 28 years.”
“Canadian soccer is finally on the map,” the CBC’s Kathryn Wright said in reporting on the historic win.
It wasn’t the only World Cup qualifier on tap that day. After the historic soccer victory, the CBC’s Sportsweekend went to the Canadian 10-pin bowling championship in Toronto with berths at another World Cup, this one in South Korea, on the line.
Back in St. John’s, the celebrations lasted long into the night.
“They gave the Canadian players a key to the city. They could go into any restaurant, into any establishment and have a meal of whatever and it was free,” Wilson said.
“It was unbelievable. … You can imagine after the game that would have been a very late night and we had an early flight. Some of us were getting straight on the plane,” added Lenarduzzi, now 66.
Qualification for the 1986 World Cup came at a difficult time. The glory years of the North American Soccer League were over, with the league folding in 1984.
Wilson, who had played in the NASL for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Chicago Sting, New York Cosmos and Toronto Blizzard, called the NASL “a huge training ground for the national team.”
Waiters offered Wilson, who was without a club, an ambassador-type position for Canadian soccer so he could focus on the national team.
Then 29 with a growing family, Lenarduzzi contemplated quitting after the NASL folded. But the Whitecaps star was persuaded to play indoor soccer in nearby Tacoma.
He recalls playing Canada’s opening qualifying game – a 2-0 win over Haiti – in the afternoon in Victoria and then flying to Tacoma to play – and score – for the indoor Stars that night.
Colombia was originally to have played host to the 1986 World Cup but withdrew in 1983 owing to financial issues and instability in the country. Canada, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, all showed interest in taking over hosting duties, but FIFA’s executive committee voted unanimously for Mexico after Brazil dropped out.
Only one World Cup berth was up for grabs in North and Central America and the Caribbean, with host Mexico guaranteed a spot in the 24-team field.
Seventeen teams started CONCACAF qualification with Guatemala receiving a bye. The remaining 16 teams were paired up for knockout matches on a home-and-away basis with the winners moving on.
Canada was to play Jamaica in the two-legged qualifying round, but the Jamaicans withdrew.
The nine teams that advanced were split into three pools with the group winners advancing to the final round.
The Canadians won their first-round group, posting a 3-0-1 record against Haiti and Guatemala, moving on to face Honduras and El Salvador in the final round. The Americans failed to advance, finishing a point behind Costa Rica after losing 1-0 to the Central America side in Torrance, Calif, in their final pool game.
Canada opened final-round play on Aug. 17, 1985, rallying for a 1-1 tie with Costa Rica at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. It went on to edge Honduras 1-0 and tie Costa Rica 0-0, both on the road, to set the stage for the Sept. 14 decider in St. John’s.
The 1986 qualifying road for Canada lasted just eight games (5-0-3) instead of the 20 that face John Herdman’s side, currently 13-0-4 in qualifying including 7-0-4 in the eight-country final round.
“I’m totally impressed,” Wilson said of the current Canadian squad.
“The quality of this team is excellent,” he added. “Where they sit right now they fully deserve.”
Canada had come close to qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, reaching the six-country CONCACAF final round-robin in Honduras after finishing ahead of Mexico and the U.S. in the three-team North American Zone.
But Canada (1-1-3) finished fourth in the final round, coming a goal short of qualifying after a final 2-2 tie with Cuba. Honduras and El Salvador moved on to the World Cup in Spain.
Canada’s 1986 World Cup team benefited from its experience at the 1984 Olympics, where it finished second in its group at 1-1-1 behind Yugoslavia before losing to Brazil in a quarter-final penalty shootout after the game finished knotted at 1-1 before 36,150 at Stanford Stadium.
Seven of the starters from the Brazil game, including Wilson and Lenarduzzi, were in the starting 11 for the decisive World Cup qualifier. Two other Olympic starters were suspended for the St. John’s match, while forward Dale Mitchell was injured.
“Sometimes people forget about the ‘84 Olympics,” Wilson said. “But Tony put together a very good, seasoned professional team that had played in the North American league for basically 10-11 years and the results we got there were very very good.”
The Canadian men have not qualified for the Olympics since. But they are finally on the verge of making it back to the World Cup.