Something happened on March 28 that hasn’t happened in 36 years.
It was the day Canada’s men’s national soccer team finally qualified for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar and did so in rather emphatic fashion, beating Jamaica in Toronto by a score of 4-0 to grab one of the automatic qualification spots up for grabs in the CONCACAF region (that’s North America, the Caribbean and Central America because they couldn’t find a smaller acronym than one where it appears a child was playing with a keyboard). It’s the second time Canada has managed to get in on the big dance following qualifying for the 1986 event in Mexico.
I will admit — I never thought they would ever get back there again and I was wrong when I told people they never would. All of those years of embarrassment losing to teams which had populations smaller than Brantford, Ont., all those years of looking like a second-rate bunch, all those years of just not playing well … all gone now. Here I thought winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2000 would have been the brightest light this country would ever have on the international soccer scene and even that was a fluke. Had they lost the coin toss to South Korea that year, we would still be talking about how we’re the country that never was.
1986, to me, was the greatest moment in Canadian men’s soccer simply because it was so momentous. A bunch of guys who mostly played indoor professionally in the U.S. because there was no professional outdoor league in Canada at the time. Colin Miller was perhaps the biggest name on the team — he played for Rangers in Scotland at the time. Randy Samuel was with Eindhoven in the Netherlands and Paul James played in Mexico but that was it. They managed to win CONCACAF by beating Honduras, 2-1, in St. John’s in September 1985 and the party was on.
It didn’t go the way we would have liked: lost all three group games and couldn’t score a goal but we got a taste of what it was all about.
Then came the 1994 qualification cycle, the year I thought was the last, best chance we had. That team had some serious firepower: Miller, Alex Bunbury (still my favourite Canadian soccer player ever), Frank Yallop, Craig Forrest as goalkeeper and several others who had outdoor professional experience. All we needed to do was beat Mexico at Varsity Stadium in a win-and-in game and we would be back. I was there that summer day in 1993 and the atmosphere was something you would expect at a Stanley Cup game. It was raucous and we were ready for a party.
Of course, Mexico had to go and ruin the party by winning, 2-1. You could literally hear the deflating sound being let out of Varsity. Mexico qualified and we didn’t. That was a long train ride home. Sure, the guys still had a chance through the intercontinental route but that fell flat as we lost to Australia in a two-leg series. The game against Mexico killed the team because they had put everything into it.
This current bunch, under the lead of John Herdman, came together and really looked like the best team in CONCACAF from the start. Cyle Larin has become the offensive star of the team and Milan Borjan has been a wall between the pipes in goal but the big difference is the team itself.
In Herdman, the men’s team got someone who understands Canadian soccer. After all, Herdman had coached the national women’s team to great success — two Olympic bronze medals and a Pan-American Games gold medal among his resume. He took over the men’s program in 2018 and it’s turned into the best decision Canada Soccer has made in a long time. He’s been the boss for 40 games, winning 29, drawing four and only losing seven.
But here’s the big thing: players finally want to play for the national team. That’s not how it used to be because anyone who was any good and was eligible to play for Canada found a way to play for a country not named Canada. Borjan could have chosen to play for his birth nation of Croatia, Alphonso Davies could have made the decision to represent Ghana — where he was born — and even Ike Ugbo, who had a choice of either England, where he was born, or Nigeria, where his parents are from.
But they chose to stay and even if they thought cracking the national team here would have been easier than somewhere else, they could have gone and probably have success. Why play for a team that can’t do anything on the international scene? Why bother showing up when we know what the result will most likely be? But they stayed and that’s how we’ve arrived to this point.
So the men’s team will take their sword (yes, they travel with a sword … neat idea, actually) to Qatar and will be a thorn in the side of more than one team. The attitude will be different because they know they can hang with the best.
And besides, we’ve got one up on Italy. Italy cannae dae it ‘cause they didnae qualify! Hey!
(I’ve always wanted a way to work in Ally’s Tartan Army into Sports Talk … Andy Cameron, you legend.)