By KURTIS LARSON
"We are not far away."
With MLS on break and the sporting world focused on South Africa, there's no better time to recall Canada's lone trip to a FIFA World Cup and those words above issued by Canadian international and Toronto FC Designated Player Julian de Guzman earlier this week in Toronto.
The 1986 World Cup had 24 teams compete from five different confederations. The tournament sported the likes of the Soviet Union, Northern Ireland and first time qualifier Canada, all competing in the sweltering heat of Mexico.
In the months leading up to the tournament, the Canadians were granted the easiest of three semi-final CONCACAF qualifying groups playing Guatemala and Haiti. After getting through undefeated, they entered the final round of North American qualifying against Honduras and Costa Rica.
With just a single spot up for grabs (Mexico had qualified automatically as host), Canada entered the final day of qualifying level with Honduras. With the winner receiving automatic qualification, the Canadians staged the September qualifier in Newfoundland where temperatures dipped into the 30s. It was enough to rattle their Central American counterparts and secure qualification through a 2-1 win with Igor Vrablic getting the winner in the 61st minute.
It was June 1, 1986, when the Canadians arrived in Leon, Mexico, for their opening game at the World Cup. They were facing a French side that had narrowly slipped into the tournament past the East Germans and Yugoslavia. But, with names like Michel Platini and Yannick Stopyra, the French were heavy favorites to cruise in the opener and easily move past the group stage.
Player accounts described the scene as they bussed to the Estadio Nou Camp, Leon.
"We were told we were going to get battered," starting defender Bob Lenarduzzi recently told reporters.
Sources inside the team insist that Mexican fans lined roads to greet the little known Canadians with signs of disrespect and heckling. Many of them jeered as the Canadian bus inched closer to the stadium and they assumed the French would handle the Canucks with ease.
With the smog filled air approaching 95 degrees, it was a stark difference for a team that eight months prior had played its final qualifying match in balmy St. John's, Newfoundland. Attendance for the 4 p.m. local time first kick was 65,000.
"I won't forget standing in that tunnel," Lenarduzzi told the CBC. "Looking and seeing Platini…they were all players that I had watched, and we were going to play them."
The game kicked off in scorching heat with the Canadians having their fair shake of possession in the French half. Team Canada even came within inches of opening the scoring with a few desperate attempts. With the game scoreless at halftime "it allowed us to walk with our heads held high," Lenarduzzi said.
The French emerged from the locker rooms and controlled long spells in the second 45 minutes, eventually taking hold of the match and netting a winner through Jean-Pierre Papin 10 minutes from full time.
"Everyone said we were going to get hammered," Lenarduzzi said. "We didn't."
It was an unforeseen scoreline that showed the Canadians could compete at the highest level and wouldn't give in to intimidation.
Playing in Group C, Canada would go on to drop its remaining two games to Hungary and the Soviet Union by 2-0 scores, avoiding blowout defeats but failing to tally a goal.
Although very few Canadian reporters made the trip, Canadians were beginning to believe they were set to break into the footballing world. They had qualified for their first-ever World Cup and had conceded just two or fewer goals in each of their three matches.
Little did they know it would be their last appearance at a World Cup finals for three decades and counting.
"Seeing teams like Slovenia, Algeria and North Korea, teams you could almost categorize as being level (with Canada), shows we are not far away," de Guzman said.
However, the fact of the matter is that Canada needs to make the final round of CONCACAF qualifying before it can even think of showing up once again at a World Cup finals.
With nations like the United States and Mexico always expected to coast through qualifying, it will be up to the Canadians to raise their level to that of Honduras and Costa Rica.
Although recent Gold Cup performances would have one believe Canada can compete with anyone in the region, in preparations for World Cup qualifying, Canada still lacks the quality to get results away from home.
The Canadian Soccer Association must get away from playing qualifying matches in cities that are opponent-friendly. Staging a qualifier against Jamaica in Toronto this last time around proved suicidal when about half the stadium was packed with yellow-and-black-clad fans.
The CSA learned that lesson once again when it decided to host Honduras in Montreal — home to the largest Honduran contingency in Canada.
In 1986, Canada strategically lined up each World Cup qualifier in a city in which it would have the majority of the support. Hosting Mexico in Edmonton was an example of that execution, and a 2-2 draw came of it.
However, only 14,000 showed up to that game, which is where another problem resides. For the CSA, very much is still about selling tickets as opposed to getting results. Until they CSA realizes that the venue is a crucial part of getting positive results, Team Canada will continue to struggle in qualifying for the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Do you think Canada is headed in the right direction? What do you think needs to be done for Canada to qualify in 2014?
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