The Canadian team that made it to the 1986 World Cup was well-drilled under coach Tony Waiters, who knew what he wanted his players to do and what he didn’t.
And he made sure they knew it.
Defender Bob Lenarduzzi first learned the Waiters way with the Vancouver Whitecaps, which continued when the coach took Canada to Mexico for the World Cup
“We were methodical,” Lenarduzzi said. “And I’m giving kudos to Tony Waiters here. We played the way we needed to play when we went.”
The ‘86 team was rigid under Waiters in his preferred 4-4-2 formation.
Lenarduzzi recalls the news conference after Canada’s final outing in Mexico, a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union. A reporter asked Waiters if he wished Canada, while competitive, could play more like Brazil.
“And without missing a beat, Tony says ‘You know what? Yeah. I wish that we could. And I also wish you could give me a magic wand and I could wave it over our players’ heads and they would turn into Brazilian-type players,”’ Lenarduzzi related.
“We were just all well-organized,” he added. “We were hard to break down because everyone bought into the idea that everyone is a defender when we don’t have the ball. And we played fairly simple stuff going forward that created enough chances for us to go and get some goals.”
Waiters, a former England goalkeeper, had the Canadian players practise “shadow soccer” in training, without opposition, in order to drill them into knowing where they should be when the other team was in possession.
“Tony would have the ball and he’d say ‘OK I’m here.
Where is everybody now?’ Including the ‘keeper,” Lenarduzzi recalled.
Waiters would then tell his players where they should be, before moving into another part of the field and reviewing their position again.
“I said ‘Tony that is the most boring thing we’ve ever had to do in training,”’ Lenarduzzi said. “And he said ‘Yeah, but it’s important.”’
“And guess who was doing shadow training when I took over the national team? Me,” he added.
Lenarduzzi made 60 appearances for Canada (including 48 international “A” outings) en route to the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame. He coached Canada in 1989 and again from 1992 to ‘97.
Dale Mitchell, a Hall of Fame forward on the ‘86 team who went on to coach Canada from 2008 to ‘09, says Waiters’ style of play wasn’t dissimilar to the way a lot of teams were playing at the time.
“The ball was played into the strikers a lot from the backline,” he said. “Now it’s more about playing through midfield. But it was all we really knew. We were set up to compete well and get results.”
When Waiters took over the Whitecaps, he was also clear on what he wanted his players to do when they had the ball.
Lenarduzzi, at right back, was used to playing the ball inside to a teammate. Waiters quickly nixed that.
“I said ‘Well, OK. What if he’s open?”’ Lenarduzzi recalled. “He said ‘No. I don’t want you to do it. We need to ensure that we don’t give the ball away in dangerous areas. So the options are you hit the frontman into his feet or you hit the space behind and then we go in, push as group and try to recover from there.’
“And that’s the way we went through the whole CONCACAF qualifying as well.”
Lenarduzzi initially wasn’t
convinced Waiters actually meant it, especially if a teammate was wide open. But when he ignored the instructions, Waiters took him to task.
“He said ‘If you can’t figure it out, then you can come and have a seat by me on the bench.”’
Lenarduzzi got the message.
Goalkeeper Paul Dolan, who was just 20 when he started against France at the World Cup, knew his part of Canada’s plan..
“My goal was to get the ball and punt it as high and as far as I could,” Dolan said. “We didn’t look to throw it into the middle of the midfield. If it was on, we might go to the fullbacks and then they would look to hit the frontman and build the platform from there, base the base from there.
“But it was very organized, very structural, very defence-minded first and foremost. But there was a huge brotherhood in that group as well that Tony brought about because of his incredible man-management.
“I would never knock the way Tony played. Maybe yes, stylistically it wasn’t the most attractive. But it got us to a World Cup, allowed us to compete at a World Cup.”
It was a different lesson that Waiters had learned at Liverpool where he was manager/ coach of the famed English club’s youth development program in 1969-70. Storied manager Bill Shankly was in charge of the Reds at the time
“Shankly, he’d say ‘Play it to the nearest red shirt. The giving and the taking of passes is the essence of football,”’ Waiters told The Canadian Press in an April 2020 interview, seven months before he died.
Canada wasn’t Liverpool, though.
Waiters showed another side of his management style at the 1984 Olympics. The Canadian team played its opening group stage in Boston and was staying in dorms at Harvard.
Lenarduzzi was rooming with Mitchell, Ian Bridge and captain Bruce Wilson, all senior players. One day in the lead-up to the Games, there was a knock at the door and when they opened it, there were six cases of beer piled outside – and no one to be seen.
That night at dinner, Waiters pulled the four of them aside and asked if they got the beer.
“‘You guys are all experienced, you know what you’re doing. You guys will drink responsibly. And I’d like the others to do the same,”’ Lenarduzzi recalled Waiters telling them. “‘So if you want to invite them and have a beer, that would be great. But you need to be looking out for them, not just as it relates to alcohol consumption but what else are they doing. And if you see that kind of stuff, I don’t need to know about it but you need to sort it out.”
On the field, Waiters worked his players hard on set pieces, knowing they represented opportunity.
The Canadians proved to be tough to break down in 1986. A star-studded French team beat Dolan just once in the opener and it took them 79 minutes to do it.
Hungary fared better, breaching the Canadian defence and ‘keeper Tino Lettieri two minutes in en route to a 2-0 victory. The Canadians conceded twice in the second half against the Soviets.
Going into the ‘86 World Cup, Waiters admitted to being “a little bit nervous.” France was European champion and Hungary had beaten CONCACAF’s El Salvador 10-1 at the 1982 tournament.
Plus the North American Soccer League had folded, meaning some of his talent had to play indoors to pay the bills.
“My fear was we could get blown out of the water and it would just reflect on the game in Canada,” Waiters said back in 2020. “The way that we prepared was that we were going to be combative and competitive. And that wasn’t difficult with the Canadian players because they worked very hard in practice, to get themselves fit, to get themselves right.
“We played a high-pressing game and we competed. It was a great experience. What I was concerned about was being embarrassed. And we weren’t embarrassed.”