Canada's grueling 36-year journey back to the World Cup

It's been a long, painful journey back to the FIFA World Cup for Canada's men's national team. (Getty Images)
It's been a long, painful journey back to the FIFA World Cup for Canada's men's national team. (Getty Images)

When the Canadian men’s national soccer team takes on Belgium on Nov. 23, it will be the first time in 36 years that they’ve appeared at the FIFA World Cup.

Canada made its lone appearance in 1986, where it flamed out of the group stage in losses to France, Hungary and the former Soviet Union, failing to record a single goal. It was an inferior team placed against giants, the result was predictable, but surely even the biggest pessimist wouldn’t have predicted that it would’ve taken several decades to arrive back on the big stage.

So, what’s happened for Canada’s men’s side since 1986? Here’s an abridged history of the national program since its lone and infamous appearance in Mexico.

A two-game loss to Guatemala ends 1990 qualification

Although the qualification process for the FIFA World Cup is a refined process, organized by each continental body, it was a lot less informal at the turn of the century. CONCACAF teams were drawn against each other for a two-game playoff, before advancing to the now-defunct CONCACAF Championship. Canada matched Guatemala on a 3-3 aggregate but were eliminated due to the away goals rule in a two-game series in October 1988.

Promising start goes up in flames Down Under

FIFA and CONCACAF revised the World Cup qualification process for the 1994 tournament and Canada initially got off to a roaring start. Canada received a bye to the second round of CONCACAF qualifying and, led by 1986 holdover Dale Mitchell and strike partner Alex Bunbury, it finished second in the CONCACAF final round.

This qualification format ensured that the winner of CONCACAF’s final round (Mexico) would gain automatic entry into the 1994 World Cup, while the runner-up (Canada) would have to take on the Oceanic Football Confederation (OFC) conference winner, which turned out to be a resolute, professional Australian side.

In the two-game inter-conference playoffs, Canada overcame a Nick Dasovic own goal in the 44th minute, to defeat Australia 2-1 in the first leg at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. Mark Watson and Domenic Mobilio scored within seven minutes of each other in the second half, and Canada took a 2-1 lead into the final leg held in Australia’s Sydney Football Stadium.

It was all for naught. After Canada equalized the contest on a 54th minute goal from Lyndon Hooper, Australia’s Mehmet Durakovic scored on a header in the 77th minute, giving Australia a 2-1 lead while tying the series 3-3 on aggregate, leading to a penalty shootout.

Canada performed miserably in the shootout, as Bunbury and Michael Sweeney couldn’t convert. This was an agonizing result, the closest Canada would ever get to the World Cup before finally breaking through in March 2022.

“Losing in penalties at any level of football, as you can imagine, is horrendous,” Canada defender Colin Miller recounted to Daniel Squizzato of in 2013. “But to be knocked out of the World Cup by penalties was not much fun at all.”

Canada would play eventual World Cup champion Brazil to a 1-1 draw, which perhaps added salt in the wound. No one in their right mind would suggest this Canadian side could stop Romario and Bebeto in the peak of their powers, but it’s an interesting thought experiment and for one game only, they managed to share the pitch with pride.

A fourth-round flop

There was no silver lining this time around for Canada. Although it advanced to the CONCACAF final group stage, Canada took a major step backwards, getting thumped 4-0 by Mexico and 3-0 by the United States in the span of two weeks in March 1997. It would take until June 1997 — its fifth game of the final round — for Canada to register its first and lone win, a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on a goal from Eddy Berdusco.

It was a humiliating result for Canada, finishing dead last in the group stage. Although Canada wouldn’t qualify again until 2022, an unexpected development took place, leading to the arguable apex of the program’s history.

On the whims of a coin flip and Gold Cup prosperity with Holger’s Heroes

Holger Osieck was named manager of the Canadian men’s program in October 1998, who was best known for his stint as assistant manager of the 1990 World Cup-winning West Germany side. Osieck quickly delivered on his unspoken promise, leading Canada to its best-ever result in a major men’s tournament.

Canada played Costa Rica to a 2-2 draw with a brace from Carlo Corazzin, then battled to a scoreless draw against South Korea during the group stage of the 2000 Gold Cup. With both Canada and South Korea posting identical goal differential records, with a tie in the head-to-head matchup, the tiebreaker came down to a coin flip.

"It felt at the time, from the events over the past two hours, it wasn't going to be our day," Canada defender Mark Watson said to The Canadian Press’s Jim Morris.

"The odds were staggering against something like that happening."

The Cinderella run continued quite literally against Mexico, the 10th-ranked team in the world at the time of the 2000 Gold Cup. During an extra time period where golden goal rules applied, Canada’s Martin Nash — yes, Steve’s brother — went on a long counterattacking run past midfield. Hastings sprung into the attack from his nominal defensive position, Nash sprayed a perfect pass into his pathway and the young Canadian defender lobbed a perfectly placed winner past Mexico’s Oscar Perez for the winner. It was Hastings’ lone goal of his international career in 59 appearances for Canada and couldn’t have come at a better time.

For all of Watson’s doom-and-gloom, he snapped out of it to sneak into the box and score the lone goal against Trinidad and Tobago in the semifinals. Canada was one step away from making history.

In the final, Canada wouldn’t be shaken. Jason DeVos, Canada’s captain, crashed the back post on a corner kick from Nash and redirected it home for the game-winning goal. Corazzin would add his tournament-leading fourth goal on a penalty kick and though the final 30 minutes must’ve felt like an eternity, Canada held on for victory.

Craig Forrest was named as the tournament’s best player, while Richard Hastings won the best young player award. Canada would later fail to qualify for the 2002 World Cup but it felt like an afterthought after the Gold Cup victory.

“It was unreal. It was just pure joy,” Forrest told Sportsnet’s John Molinaro in 2019. “Jason [DeVos] and I just looked at each other and were laughing and screaming. We didn’t have to say anything to each other. We knew what a special moment it was and what we just achieved. It was a proud moment for soccer in Canada.”

Uncertainty under Frank Yallop

Osieck resigned his post in September 2003, creating a new, uncertain era for the program. Colin Miller served in an interim role, before being replaced by Frank Yallop. It may have been arguably the most uninspiring football of the era and Canada flamed out of the 2006 World Cup qualifying group stage, failing to upend Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. Yikes.

A dreary qualification run under Stephen Hart and Dale Mitchell

Mitchell may have earned his bonafides as a player, but his managerial career is forgettable. He took over from Stephen Hart (more on him below) and under his watch, Canada didn’t make it to the CONCACAF final group for the second consecutive World Cup qualification cycle, mustering just two points in six games against Honduras, Mexico and Jamaica.

Humiliation by Honduras

Honduras 8, Canada 1.

That was the final scoreline in San Pedro Sula on Oct. 16, 2012, the nadir for the Canadian men’s national team. All Canada had to do was win to advance to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Instead, it submitted the worst performance in the country’s history, which amounted to widespread public humiliation. Hart had returned as manager and resigned immediately thereafter.

“All I can do is ask the fans' forgiveness on behalf of the players," Hart said. "I know they'll never forgive me but on behalf of the players, forgive them.”

Given what was at stake, this prompted a referendum of sorts about what was working — and clearly, what wasn’t working — in the program. Immediately after the game, the Canadian Soccer Association declined to comment on the loss, knowing that it would be under fire for the humiliating defeat.

"There's no other way to describe it than to say I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up," Canada defender David Edgar said to CBC Sports in January 2022. "As each goal goes in, you just think it can't be real. You want off the field, you just want to wake up because that couldn't have been real. That's what went through my mind."

John Herdman takes over the men’s program

Herdman was named head coach of the men’s national team program on Jan. 8, 2018, taking over for the fired Octavio Zambrano. Not everyone was thrilled about this development, particularly those who felt Canada Soccer were doing the successful women’s program a massive disservice by uprooting Herdman, who had been with the team since 2011. Christine Sinclair tweeted that she was speechless, while Diana Matheson wished Herdman good luck but was still sad and shocked about the move.

“We're looking at long-term, what we felt was necessary in terms of the development of our programs on the men's side," Canada Soccer president Steve Reed told CBC Sports. "And we wanted to build that long-term alignment much like we've experienced on the women's side.”

After failing to advance to the final stage of the CONCACAF world group yet again, there was a much-needed change for the men’s side and Herdman was the man for the job. Herdman had never coached a men’s national side before, but there were no more half-measures left in the tank for Canada Soccer.

Herdman began to regularly incorporate Canada’s new wave of talent into his lineup, with Cyle Larin, Alphonso Davies, Jonathan Osorio and a handful of other young, emerging stars developing under his wing. Without hyperbole, his hiring was the best thing to ever happen to the men’s national program.

A golden qualification run

Canada not only qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the second time in history, it led the CONCACAF final group for the majority of the qualification process and never looked back. Sporting a 8-4-2 record in the final group, this was a banner run for the men’s program under Herdman’s watch. Starting the qualification process as the No. 73 ranked team in the world, this was always seemingly poised to be an uphill battle, but it’s a testament to Herdman’s coaching and the revamped Canadian developmental system that allowed this to be a relatively easy task.

During the first round, Canada crushed its opponents to the tune of a plus-26 goal differential and a perfect 4-0-0 record. The second round challenger would be Haiti, where Canada cruised to a 4-0 victory on aggregate over two legs. This wasn’t your older brother’s Canadian side that would routinely get crushed by minnows while lacking the top-end talent to take over games.

Larin’s six goals led the CONCACAF final group and through the opening two games, he was the constant amid some early uncertainty, scoring goals in both of Canada’s draws against Honduras and the United States. Canada would find its form as a cohesive unit, using Alphonso Davies as a forward, as opposed to left back where he plays at Bayern Munich, and the collective speed, skill and finishing ability of Larin, Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan became the defining story of the regional qualification.

Canada drew Mexico 1-1 at the Estadio Azteca, one of football’s venerated venues, played Jamaica to a scoreless draw in Kingston, before pummeling Panama 4-1 at Toronto’s BMO Field. It was here where Davies scored one of the goals of the 2021 calendar cycle.

This was the first of six consecutive wins for Canada, running over the group entirely. It overcame the ghosts of yesteryear against Honduras. Canada defeated the United States without Davies and served as a representation of the country’s best qualities during a 2-0 victory on Jan. 30. And it fended off boredom against El Salvador.

In deserving fashion, Canada pummeled Jamaica 4-0 at BMO Field on March 27 to secure its ticket to Qatar, becoming the first team from CONCACAF to do so.

"We're a football country," Herdman said post-game. "We've got a kid (Alphonso Davies) winning Champions League finals. We've got players all over Europe. We've got young kids coming through. And we've just qualified for a World Cup. This is a legit football country.”

This winter’s Canadian men’s national soccer team is the best, most promising group this country has ever seen. It took almost 40 years to get to Qatar, but the wait has been worth it.

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