Sitting under a stifling sun in a polluted central Mexico city known for manufacturing leather shoes, I leaned over to the woman who has been at my side for more than five decades now and uttered this unlikely and profound statement: “There is nowhere in the world I would rather be right now than here.”
This was history being made. Sports history. Canadian history. Personal history. How often do you witness something that has never happened? It was in Leon, population two million, a city most of us had never heard of, and it was Canada’s first game at the World Cup, soccer’s holy grail. Only two North and Central America nations qualified; the other one was the host, Mexico.
To see Canada play mighty France from the mostly unpopulated stands at Estadio Leon that Sunday afternoon was spine-tingling. Canada was there by virtue of playing its geographical card — a cold, rainy day in Newfoundland — to trump Honduras 2-1. It was to be the stepping stone for a place with the big boys (or at least the medium boys) of world soccer but it never happened.
Now, 35 years later, Canada is poised to take that next step. There have been no World Cup appearances since 1986 but there is reason to think it will happen again, next year in Qatar. Canada’s geographical card this time will be playing two games against formidable opponents, Costa Rica and Mexico, in Edmonton.
Bienvenidos to winter, amigos!
The central figure in Canada’s trip to Mexico in ’86 never kicked a ball. Tony Waiters was the genius coach who designed a game plan tailored to the skills of his modestly talented, committed players. Stop the opposition first and score later was the concept and, that day in Leon, it almost worked against France. Bobby Lenarduzzi mis-kicked from six yards for the only team without a goal at the ’86 World Cup.
That team was a collection of mostly home-grown talent brought together at the 11th hour. Some hadn’t played at all, some were playing indoor soccer and a few actually played for reputable teams outdoors. There was no Alphonso Davies, the explosive dynamo on the 2021 Canadian team. There was much less talent and, comparatively, there was no depth.
This team has already taken qualifying points in Mexico and in the U.S., which had never happened. If it’s not about to be the best team in Canadian history, it likely will be. If Davies isn’t the Christine Sinclair of the men’s team, he soon will be the greatest of all time, a crown that still arguably belongs to Lenarduzzi.
If Canada gets to the World Cup, this time there will be a goal — probably many. Wouldn’t it be fitting if that record was broken by Alphonso Davies?
It might even match that day in Leon.