Tournament noted for Canada making its only World Cup appearance
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“On the television back in Canada, it looked like the shot actually went in and people thought that I had scored! So, I guess I gave some Canadian fans some excitement… even if it was just temporary.”– Dale Mitchell, retired Canadian striker and member of the 1986 Canadian World Cup squad
June 2021 marked 35 years since the FIFA World Cup in Mexico. The tournament was played in an era when Canada made its finest achievement in the “beautiful game” qualifying for the World Cup in Mexico (their only appearance at a FIFA World Cup). Unfortunately, Canada would be eliminated after the preliminary stage. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable accomplishment.
The 1986 World Cup was dominated by a diminutive, yet explosive and dangerous player for Argentina: Diego Armando Maradona. He scored five goals in the tournament, while also winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Gary Lineker of England won the Golden Boot as top goal scorer with six goals.
But Maradona’s brilliance on the soccer pitch in Mexico would be overshadowed by controversy. He received the wrath from English fans during Argentina’s quarterfinal match against England on June 22. Argentina opened the scoring early into the second half in the 51st minute. A ball was kicked high towards England goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, and Maradona was also chasing the ball. Both men leaped in the air, with Maradona punching the ball with his left hand. The ball rolled into the net and England players protested immediately to the referee, but to no avail—the goal counted.
Maradona famously said of his controversial goal to the media, “A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” But 16 years later, in his 2002 autobiography, Maradona was more candid about his infamous goal: “Now I feel I am able to say what I couldn’t then. At the time I called it ‘the hand of God.’ Bollocks! It wasn’t the hand of God; it was the hand of Diego! And it felt a little bit like pick-pocketing the English.”
Maradona’s second goal (four minutes later) was not tainted with controversy and considered by many as the greatest goal ever scored in a FIFA World Cup tournament. Maradona, after receiving a pass near mid-field, made a quick pivot and proceeded down field with the ball. He dribbled past five England players before scoring on Peter Shilton while falling. The goal is incredible; the work of a genius—a masterpiece. Argentina won the match by a score of 2 to 1. In 2002, Maradona’s amazing goal against England was voted “Goal of the Century” by FIFA.com voters.
Argentina eventually won the tournament defeating West Germany in the final by a score of 3 to 2. Maradona did not score in the game, but he set up the winning goal in the 86th minute, with a deft pass to send Jorge Burruchaga free who beat West Germany goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher, with a soft shot into the corner of the net. Maradona’s professional soccer career lasted 21 years. He played 490 official club games and scored 259 goals. Maradona also made 91 appearances for Argentina, scoring 34 goals. He retired from professional football in 1997, having played two seasons with Boca Juniors (second stint). Maradona died of a heart attack in November 2020 at age 60.
Canada at the 1986 FIFA World Cup
Canada was in Group C that included France, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Canada lost all three group matches (1-0 loss to France, and 2-0 defeats to both Hungary and the Soviet Union). Canada also failed to score a goal but they played hard and were competitive. After the third loss to the Soviet Union, Canadian coach, Tony Waiters (who passed away in November 2020 at age 83) was proud of his players’ performance. “From a Canadian perspective, we’ve given everything we’ve been able to give,” he told the media as reported in The Globe and Mail on June 10, 1986. “In this World Cup, that was not enough to win a game or score a goal. But I think we have a solid base for the future. We realize what we have to do to improve as a country.”
Retired Canadian striker Dale Mitchell was a member of the 1986 Canadian World Cup squad in Mexico. He played in Canada’s final group match against the Soviet Union. “Well, it was the third match of the group stage and not the first and we had lost the other two games, so some of the excitement was gone,” Mitchell said in an email interview with the Other Press in November 2020. “Mostly I recall a free kick that went just over the bar and due to the netting behind the goal it landed on top of the net. Anyways, on the [television] back in Canada, it looked like the shot actually went in and people thought that I had scored! So, I guess I gave some Canadian fans some excitement… even if it was just temporary.”
Today, as Mitchell reflects on the 35th anniversary of the FIFA World Cup in Mexico, he is proud to have represented his country on the world football stage. “At the time you’re self-absorbed like most players, wanting to play more and do better,” he said. “When you remove yourself a few decades later, you realize that the team we had during the [mid-1980s] had some great moments and just getting to a World Cup is a fantastic achievement.”
Canada hoping to qualify for 2022 FIFA World Cup
On June 15, the Canadian men’s soccer team defeated Haiti by a score of 3 to 0 and 4 to 0 on aggregate. The victory puts Canada into the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time since 1997, which begins in September 2021. The final round of eight teams has Canada grouped with the US, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and El Salvador. Each team will play each other (home and away). The top three teams will advance to the World Cup in 2022, being held in Qatar. The team who finishes in fourth place will participate in an intercontinental playoff (to determine the final two qualifying spots).