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What was it like in Canada when they qualified for the 1986 World Cup?

If you are in your mid-40's or older, you'll probably remember when Canada last made it to the World Cup in 1986. Or maybe not... I'm going to jot down my recollections of what the mood in the country was like surrounding Canada's historic achievement of making it to their first ever World Cup finals and how it was an astonishing feat that they got there.

Point 1 - 1986 was a very special year. Ah, 1986. Billboard's top songs of the year were:

  1. "That's What Friends Are For" by Dionne and Friends (Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder)

  2. "Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie

  3. "I Miss You" by Klymaxx (hmm, I don't remember this one...)

  4. "On My Own" by Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald

  5. "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister

Those songs weren't really my type of music and had just started to get into alternative music, so some of my favourite songs for 1986 were more like:

  1. "Alive and Kicking" by Simple Minds

  2. "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel

  3. "Something About You" by Level 42

  4. "If You Leave" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

  5. "Bizzare Love Triangle" by New Order

  6. "Pretty In Pink" by Psychedelic Furs

Top TV shows in 1986:

  1. "The Cosby Show"

  2. "Family Ties"

  3. "Cheers"

How about the top movies for 1986:

  1. "Top Gun" (by the way, can't wait for the sequel Top Gun: Maverick to be released May 27, 2022)

  2. "Crocodile Dundee"

  3. "The Karate Kid, Part II" (also loving it's recent rebirth with the Cobra Kai series)

  4. "Back to School"

  5. "Aliens" (still one of my favourite sci-fi movies)

  6. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (also a favourite - I loved that it was set in present day San Francisco, which is not so present anymore, 1986).

1986 was a great year for Canada and for myself personally. I was in my final year of high school and looking forward to moving away and starting university in Ontario. As a graduation gift, my parents took me on a trip to Vancouver to check out the World's Fair, Expo'86, which was amazing. Both my parents have passed on but I'll have those memories of that experience with them forever. Even when I listen to those songs I listed earlier, it doesn't seem like it was 36 years ago and still sounds as new and fresh like as when I heard them for the first time. For a boy coming from the prairies to the "Big Smoke", I had never heard of bands like New Order, Depeche Mode, Midnight Oil, REM or really even The Smiths or The Cure. It sort of blew my mind and I couldn't believe I had been missing out. Millennials may never understand Gen X'ers nostalgia for the 80's just like I didn't understand the older people's nostalgia for the 60's when I was young, but I certainly appreciate the culture and the music now (thanks Forrest Gump).

Point 2 - Was it a big deal in Canada when the Men's National Team made it to the 1986 World Cup? From what I recall, I'd have to say 'no'. There's obviously a hard core group of fans, amateur soccer players, family and friends who cared but, for the most part, the rest of Canada weren't that excited. Sure it made news headlines that Canada had done something they hadn't done before, but people in Canada never embraced the team, jumped on the bandwagon and went wild the way they did, for example, when the Raptors made it to the NBA Finals in 2019. At that time, the World Cup itself, wasn't that big of a deal, outside of the Italian diaspora in Toronto, who celebrated on College Street when their team won or the older English ex-pats who spent their Saturday mornings together trying to catch scores from English First Division (the precursor to the Premier League) games. These communities spread their love of soccer to the rest of the country to where Canadians, over time, joined the rest of the world to now make the World Cup a big deal. This time around, when Canada makes it to the World Cup, it will be a big deal for all of Canada and you will see bandwagon jumpers, who previously had no interest in the CMNT, getting all fanatical and talking like they are experts who know who Mark-Anthony Kaye or Stephen Eustáquio are and discuss their strengths and weaknesses like they've been watching them for years.

Back in 1986, I think there was a feeling, that it was only the beginning and that we could expect Canada to make it to every World Cup from that point on - after all soccer had overtaken other sports as the top participation sport among youth and continued to grow. I don't think anyone could have guessed how long it would take before Canada got back into another one.

Point 3 - Looking back, what Canada did to qualify for World Cup 1986 is quite amazing. Back then, the World Cup was only a 24-team tournament, not like the 32-team tournament it will be in Qatar or the 48-team tournament starting in 2026. CONCACAF was allotted only two spots. As the host, Mexico was automatically given one spot, which meant there was only one spot left for the rest of the CONCACAF teams. Canada beat out 17 other teams to claim that spot.

To get that spot, the teams had to compete in the 1985 CONCACAF Championship qualification round. Teams were matched up and played a home-and-away series. The matchups were:

  • El Salvador and Puerto Rico

  • Canada and Jamaica

  • U.S. and Netherlands Antilles

  • Costa Rica and Barbados

  • Panama and Honduras

  • Trinidad & Tobago and Grenada

  • Haiti and Antigua & Barbuda

  • Suriname and Guyana

El Salvador, Canada (Jamaica withdrew), the U.S., Costa Rica (Barbados withdrew), Honduras, T&T (Grenada withdrew), Haiti and Suriname advanced. Guatemala received a bye and automatically advanced to the Championship round.

The nine teams were split into three groups, with the winners advancing to the Final Round:

Group 1


El Salvador


Group 2




Group 3

Costa Rica


Trinidad & Tobago

Canada won their group by going undefeated, with 3 wins and 1 draw - wins against Haiti (2-0), and Guatemala (2-1), a draw against Guatemala (1-1), and another win against Haiti (2-0). Honduras knocked off El Salvador and Suriname to win their group, while Costa Rica topped their group by beating out the U.S. and T&T.

In the Final Round, the three remaining teams played home-and-away games against each other. Canada drew their first game against Costa Rica 1-1 at home where it was played at Varsity Stadium in Toronto with 13,486 fans in attendance. Costa Rica opened the scoring in the 12th minute with a goal by Johnny Williams. Paul James drew the Canadians even in the second half with a goal in the 58th minute.

The second game saw Canada travel to Honduras to play at Estadio Tiburcio Carías Andino in Tegucigalpa, not at Estadio Olimipic in San Pedro Sula, where the Hondurans now play their national team games. There were 37,000 fans who saw Teddy Pakos of Canada score the only goal of the game in the 58th minute to give Canada the important 1-0 road win. Prior to the Jan. 27, 2022 win, that was the last time Canada had beaten Honduras in Honduras in World Cup qualifying.

Canada's next game was in Costa Rica. Played in front of 23,398 fans, the two teams played to a 0-0 draw, allowing Canada to escape with another point on the road.

Canada's final game was the iconic game played at a temporary field at King George V Park in St. John's Newfoundland. With all three teams sitting at three points and Costa Rica finished their games, Canada needed only a draw to make it through as they held the tie-breaker based on goal differential (Canada's GD was 2, while Honduras' was 0). Teddy Pakos scored in the 15th minute to give Canada the lead. Honduras' Porfirio Armando Betancourt scored four minutes into the second half to make things a little tight around the collar for the Canadians. However, Igor Vrablic replied in the 61st minute to give Canada an insurance marker. They would batten down the hatches and go to full time as winners of the 1985 CONCACAF Championship, punching their ticket to Mexico on the last day of qualification back on September 14, 1985. This game was broadcast on CBC, not as a big main event, but as part of their CBC Sports Weekend show, which tended to showcase a medley of sports that weren't as popular to Canadians such as diving, F1 racing, indoor lawn bowling, amateur wrestling, swimming, etc. Even the location for the game was selected mainly because there was apathy from many Canadian cities for hosting it. The coach of that 1986 team, Tony Waiters (who passed away in 2020) said St. John's was the only city that seemed to have any interest in the game and the CSA decided to go there because the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association provided a financial guarantee, that the CSA would get a defined amount of dollars from the gate receipts.

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