The introduction of FIFA rankings was still six years away, but Canada’s first trip to the men’s World Cup finals was arguably more of a baptism of fire than this year’s second go-round. Thirty-six years ago in Mexico, Tony Waiters’s team was drawn to play against reigning European champion France, a Soviet Union team that would reach the final of Euro 88, and a Hungary squad that finished above the Netherlands in qualifying.
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The results didn’t go Canada’s way, with the team falling 1-0 to France in the opener, before suffering 2-0 losses to both Hungary and the Soviet Union, but that trailblazing team gave this country a first taste of life at the top table of world soccer.
Here, three members of that Canadian squad – the majority of whom were playing indoor soccer in the buildup to Mexico 86 – reflect on the experience.
What were your first thoughts on arriving in Mexico to take part in one of sport’s greatest spectacles?
Paul Dolan, goalkeeper: Honestly, it’s been so bloody long. It’s almost hard to remember what those feelings were like. I was only 20 so it was being thrown into this whirlwind almost overnight, and just loving every part of it. I think the feeling that I had was excitement more so than apprehension which, later in my career, I felt sometimes more nervous or apprehensive about performing well in a big game. But in this, I almost felt like we were in a no-lose situation because we weren’t expected to do well, and that we were going to enjoy being there.
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Carl Valentine, striker: You just tried to take it all in because when we qualified almost a year before, you didn’t realize the magnitude. When I went back to England [Valentine was born in Manchester], I got quite a bit of publicity because I think I was the first Englishman to qualify even though I was playing for Canada. But when you arrive you’re just trying to soak it all in. You’re obviously looking forward to the games, but a bit nervous that they could go badly.
Bob Lenarduzzi, defender: Arriving there was a little anticlimactic, because the hotel that we were in [in Leon] had literally built a field outside of it. It was a beautiful field, but that was our [training] pitch. So we weren’t in among anything, we were on our own pretty much, but the people that were at the hotel in terms of the service people were unbelievable, like they were so excited about having one of the World Cup countries staying with them.
June, 1, 1986. Canada opens against France in Leon. What are your memories of that game, and particularly playing against Michel Platini, who was a three-time Ballon d’Or winner?
Dolan: We knew that they were one of the favourites, and Michel Platini was one of the most famous players on the planet. But we didn’t have the ability ... to see Champions League games and really know the players. So a lot of it was legend, kind of like when Canada played Russia [in hockey’s Summit Series], that type of scenario where you hear about it, but you don’t really know the names of the players except for Platini.
Lenarduzzi: We all had to transition from being fans and having watched these guys with their club sides. Our bus ride to the stadium was interesting because what the Mexican fans do is they line the streets once you get closer and they recognize which bus is coming in. In our case, what they were doing was they were putting their hands up to kind of signify the score. And so they had both hands up for France and then there was the zero that was clearly intended for us, so in their minds we were going to get stuffed.
Valentine: I think they scored with 10 minutes to go but you have to have some satisfaction, even though they dominated large portions of the game that we hung in there. And Platini gave us the ultimate compliment when he was asked by the media if it was disappointing that they only won 1-0 and he said, ‘No, no, we’re not disappointed. We knew it was going to be a hard game. We knew they were going to be prepared, and we’re happy to win the game.’
Lenarduzzi: The other thing I can see to this day is standing in the tunnel before the game, and Bruce Wilson was our captain, I was behind him. And Michel Platini, the captain of France, whose English was half decent, looked over at Bruce and said, ‘Hey, Toronto Blizzard.’ Juventus had played in Toronto in a friendly [in 1983]. So he actually recognized Bruce [who played for the Blizzard of the North American Soccer League] which is kind of interesting.
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Five days later it was off to Irapuato to take on Hungary, which was a very different game to the opener, with Canada falling behind in the second minute. How did that game go?
Valentine: I think subconsciously we felt that was the best chance [to get a result] and we’re behind the 8-ball early on, and we were not a team built to come from behind. It was a team to keep it close and to maybe take one of our chances that we would create to try to get a win. That was probably the most disappointing game for us.
Dolan: I’m sitting on the bench watching it [Tino Lettieri got the start in goal]. I remember the goal going in and not to knock Tino by any means, because you know he was going to be the No. 1 goalkeeper [going into the World Cup] if he wasn’t playing in the [1986 Major Indoor Soccer] indoor championship final, right up to Game 7, which meant he didn’t have enough preparation time.
Lenarduzzi: I wasn’t feeling the same way as I was prior to the French game. I was feeling anxious and feeling like we need to make sure that we defend well. And when we get chances ideally we can we can bag one. What had happened after we’d finished playing France, Hungary played Russia [and lost 6-0]. We were like, ‘Oh my god, we can beat these guys.’ To me, that’s the disappointment of being at the World Cup, was that we wasted an opportunity.
Three days later, it was on to the Soviet Union, and with the four best third-placed sides also qualifying from the group stage in that World Cup, Canada still had a lot to play for. But that Soviet team had not one, but two Ballon d’Or winners in Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov. What do you remember about Canada’s most recent World Cup game?
Lenarduzzi: I think we reacquired the attitude that we had abandoned for the Hungary game and realized these are the guys that thumped Hungary 6-0 and Hungary beat us 2-0 so we shouldn’t be feeling like we just need to go out there and try and match their ability. I don’t think we created a lot of chances but they were a good side and once we went one down, I think we had to open it up again because we needed a win.
Dolan: Their goalkeeper, Rinat Dasayev, was considered the best in the world. I asked him for his jersey because he was on the bench that game and he looked at me with his gold teeth, and said ‘Nyet.’ I don’t know if they only got one jersey for each game or what it was, but he wasn’t interested.
Valentine: In North America at that time, most of the top players were playing indoor soccer. So that team was basically most of the players who were playing the indoor soccer, and then you had to finish that season and go and play in a World Cup. So I don’t know if we get as much credit as we should have because of the mountain that we had to climb. But, you know, we didn’t embarrass ourselves and I think we did ourselves proud.
The responses have been edited for clarity and length.