Canada’s chance at a World Cup
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“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.” – Dale Mitchell
Hockey is Canada’s game; historically, the beautiful game of soccer, is not. Canada’s one and only appearance in a FIFA World Cup tournament came in 1986 in Mexico when the late Tony Waiters was the coach for the Canadian men’s national team.
On September 14, 1985, Canada booked their ticket to the FIFA World Cup when they defeated Honduras by a score of 2-1. The memorable match was played at King George V Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland—with 13,000 in attendance. The victory is considered Canada’s greatest soccer achievement in the country’s history.
On June 1, 1986, Canada, played its first game against France, the European champions—and considered by many to be the best team in Europe. The French were strong and were led by their core group known as Le Carré Magique (magic square) of Luis Fernández, Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse, and Michel Platini—one of the greatest midfielders of all time. Canada was an underdog and it was a “David versus Goliath” scenario with many in the press predicting France to annihilate Canada.
In spite of the odds, Canada played a solid game and they were competitive against the French. The game was even until France scored in the 79th minute on a goal by Jean-Pierre Papin—heading a loose ball high into the net. France would win the match by a score of 1-0.
Unfortunately, Canada lost to Hungary and the Soviet Union in the next two games—both by scores of 2-0. Although Canada failed to win a game in their group, or even score a goal, they did well and competed hard. Canada head coach, Waiters, was honest in his own assessment of the Canadian squad; in the 2006 TSN documentary, The Journey, he spoke about how he wanted to make sure Canada was competitive, and prove to the soccer world that they deserved to be there: “We weren’t gonna win the World Cup. But what I didn’t want to happen in Mexico was for the Canadians to be embarrassed.”
Since-retired striker Dale Mitchell was a member of the 1986 Canadian World Cup team. He recalls Waiters trying to motivate the Canadian players before their first game against the mighty French. “I remember the meetings before he was butchering their [player’s] names and criticizing their game,” Mitchell said in an email interview with the Other Press. “[Defender, Ian Bridge], and I were looking at each other and kind of laughing. It was all meant to not make us feel inferior. As you know, we did not get blown out and competed fairly well.”
Mitchell played in one game at the World Cup in Mexico: Canada’s third and final group match against the Soviet Union; he was recovering from a serious injury a year prior to the World Cup. “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. “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.”
Despite Canada having a record of 0 wins and 3 losses during group play, Mitchell has good memories having played in a World Cup match. “At the time, you’re self-absorbed like most players, wanting to play more and do better,” Mitchell 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.”
Unfortunately, since Canada’s appearance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the country has failed to qualify for another FIFA World Cup tournament. However, there is optimism for Canada in the future—especially with the new Canadian Premier League, which began in 2019, providing a solid foundation and structure to keep Canadian players active and competitive.
Also working in Canada’s favour is the emergence of a star player, Alphonso Davies, who has been making an impact with the Bundesliga club Bayern Munich, as well as the Canadian national team. With Canada being a co-host country for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the potential is there for Canada to once again become competitive on the world soccer stage.