June 3, 2012
Canada was livin' the dream in '86
By Kurtis Larson, QMI Agency
World Cup veteran Carl Valentine still references Canada’s 1986 miracle run as something of a dream.
“It didn’t seem real,” he said of Canada’s first, and only, trip to soccer’s World Cup. “Our first game was against one of the favourites to win the tournament. It was one of those surreal moments.”
Kitted out in skin-tight white tops with Canada etched across the chest, the Reds were minutes away from opening Group C against the mighty French, one of the odds-on favourites to win in Mexico.
“As a player you don’t want to get too wrapped up in it,” Valentine said, when asked about the tense moments in the stadium tunnel before kickoff. “(We) looked across and saw (Michel) Platini, one of the best players in the world.”
Having completed its magical run through CONCACAF qualifying just nine months earlier, Canada would somehow have to contain France’s famed “Magic Square,” which, along with Platini, featured Alain Giresse, Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana across midfield.
Remarkably, the Reds kept a clean sheet against Les Bleus for close to 80 minutes that day and were close to pulling off what would have been a shock result had Canadian ’keeper Paul Dolan kept his head.
“Most of the game they had good possession and we were doing our best to shut them down,” Valentine said. “With 10 minutes to go, we were tied with one of the best teams in the world.”
That’s when Dolan misjudged a harmless cross that France’s Yannick Stopyra headed across goal to Jean-Pierre Papin for an easy header into the vacated net. The French escaped with a 1-0 scoreline.
From there, Canada dropped consecutive 2-0 results before exiting the tournament.
Although they didn’t score a goal in Mexico, the Canadians earned praise for their ability to stay organized and make life difficult for the Soviets and Hungarians, the two nations that completed Canada’s first-round group.
“I’m sure (they) were expecting a bit of a cakewalk,” Valentine said of Canada’s opponents. “Yes, they beat us, but we didn’t embarrass ourselves … I think they appreciated the effort we put in.”
HOW’D IT HAPPEN?
Finding themselves in the final round of qualifying in 1985, after earning a pair of draws against Costa Rica and a surprise win in Honduras, Canada needed a point from its last Match Day to win CONCACAF’s final round and book its place to Mexico.
“We put (the rematch) as far in Eastern Canada as we could so it would be cold, damp and really not suitable for the Hondurans,” Valentine said of the 2-1 victory, heralded as the greatest day in Canadian soccer history. “That was the philosophy behind it, to get a real intimate place for us where we would get mostly Canadian fans.”
Close to 6,000 fans poured into King George V Park in St. John’s, and made for a boisterous, pro-Canada atmosphere the Canadian Soccer Association dreams of replicating at some point in the near future.
Problem is, the Reds haven’t been anywhere close to providing that kind of excitement for close to two decades.
Canada was a game away from securing qualification for a second time in 1994, but missed out on the World Cup USA after losing on penalties to Australia in a qualification playoff.
Four years later, Canada made it as far as the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, but fell well short, finishing at the bottom of the confederation’s six-team hexagonal on just six points from 10 matches.
Attempts to qualify for the 2002, ’06 and ’10 tournaments were unmitigated disasters. During the past three qualifying campaigns, Canada has failed to emerge from the region’s semifinal round — the stage it enters next Friday when it reopens qualifying in Cuba.
Looking back, as the rest of the region continued to progress and build infrastructure to expand the North American game, Canada fell behind — something Valentine thinks could change during the coming cycle.
“Lightning can strike twice,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, but they’ve got a good group.”
Eleven players remain from the group that failed to advance beyond the third round four years ago, but Valentine, who now works in the Vancouver Whitecaps organization, sees something different in the current crop of Canadians.
“I think it’s a great squad,” he said. “It has a good blend of youth and some players that have some good experience playing in Europe … It’s always going to be tough for a Canadian team, but they have a real good opportunity.”
Comparing 1985 to now, Valentine singled out Canada’s opening fixtures as being the games that will dictate where Canada finishes in Group C this fall. A top two finish will see it advance to the region’s final round.
“You need to get off to a real strong start,” he said, comparing Canada’s upcoming campaign to that of the mid-1980s. “(We’ve) not done that in the past, especially with the home games … We’re not a possession team so we can’t really be chasing it.”