36 years ago, the Canadian mens' national team played at the FIFA World Cup for the first time. They didn't win a game or even score a goal but the moment inspired a generation who blazed a trail all the way to Qatar 2022.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: If Canadians can see it, they can do it. This is a proven fact, but not every starting point or instance of inspiration prompts a meteoric rise, let alone even a consistent upward trajectory, such is the case with Canada Soccer, at least, on the men's side. In fact, nothing immediate came of the first real world example of the possibilities for Canadians in the soccer space, or that 36 years ago, Canadian men played at the World Cup for the first time after traveling a far less arduous road through qualification.
It mattered less that Canada failed to score a single goal at the tournament, losing to France, Hungary, and the Soviet Union in Mexico City. What did matter is that Canada's sporting infrastructure wasn't prepared to capitalize on the moment, and also, the demographics weren't what they are now. Canada's population has grown by roughly 45% in the near four decades since with much of that increase thanks to families arriving from other countries. Many of which brought with them an interest in soccer, so it was going to take time.
It wouldn't snowball after '86, and instead, it sagged. Canada fell narrowly short in qualification in 1994, losing in penalties to Australia in the inter-confederation play-offs. Then Canada took a step back in 1998, finishing last in the final round, winning once in 10 games in the round robin format. Somehow, Canada wasn't any closer in '02, in '06, in 2010, before that embarrassing and humiliating loss to Honduras in the lead up to 2014.
Still, 1986 meant something. Consider Owen Hargreaves, who was born in Calgary, Alberta after his family emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom about a half decade before the 1986 World Cup, and Dwayne de Rosario, who was born to Guyanese parents in Scarborough in 1978 and carried the torch for Canada with pride, despite the nation's immense struggles in soccer over the last 20 years. And then there's Atiba Hutchinson, who was born in Brampton to Trinidadian parents in 1983 and will wear the armband for Canada in Qatar. We can trace these breakthroughs back to 1986.
Those three games in Mexico City meant more locally in homes across the country and profoundly for new Canadians than it may have meant nationally. It helped lay the groundwork for the country and its athletes. Behind the scenes, the sport grew. The explosion may have been a bit delayed, but it wouldn't have been possible at all without the inroads made in 1986.