Memories of ’86

The inside story of Canada’s improbable World Cup debut

Trevor Cole
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Canada’s 1986 World Cup team, a mix of pros and amateurs, line up for a photo before their match against France, the defending European champions. (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images)

A specific kind of optimism began filling the air in the months leading up to November’s World Cup festivities. It happened in this country just once before: in the mid-1980s, when, for a fleeting moment, Canada was a rising force in soccer. To much of the sporting world, our appearance at the Cup was, like now, a shock. Canada? We’d never managed to qualify in the tournament’s 56-year history. What happened when we finally did is the stuff of soccer legend, and a story that holds a few lessons for the athletes of 2022.

Team 1986’s momentum began well before World Cup qualifiers. In the lead-up to the 1984 Olympic Games, Canada crawled out of the lower depths of the world rankings and into the top 70—which was still not great. But somehow we startled the soccer establishment by reaching the quarter-finals against Brazil, nearly beating them. This sudden show of strength was owed, in part, to expert coaching by Tony Waiters, a moustached Brit who once played goalkeeper for Blackpool, and athletes like Ian Bridge, Bruce Wilson and Dale Mitchell, who played in the North American Soccer League, or NASL.

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When the NASL folded at the end of 1984 due to waning revenues and spectator interest, many of Team Canada’s Olympic standouts found themselves at loose ends. To fill the void, Waiters conceived of what became known as a “team in-being,” one without a league or schedule, which existed purely to keep our players focused and in shape. A combination of newly unemployed ex-NASL pros and talented amateurs formed a touring band of 15 to 20 players. Together, they travelled as far afield as Egypt, Morocco and China to play in tournaments and exhibition games, living on a $35 per diem from Soccer Canada—and the largesse of friends and family.

What the ragtag Canadians lacked in fancy footwork, they made up for in other ways, says Ian Bridge, Canada’s starting centre back at the 1984 Olympics. “We were not necessarily the most skilled team,” Bridge says. “But we were the best in terms of tactics, fitness, a real work ethic.” Facing down World Cup qualifiers, the players were determined to prove their Olympic run was no fluke. In the first round, Canada dispatched Haiti and Guatemala. Three hard-fought games late in the summer of 1985—in Toronto, Honduras and Costa Rica—set the stage for the deciding match at home against Honduras.

What the ragtag Canadians lacked in fancy footwork, they made up for in other ways

It was a drizzly September Saturday at a makeshift pitch in King George V Park in St. John’s. A raucous 7,500 spectators cheered from temporary bleachers. George Pakos—on unpaid leave from his job as a water-meter mechanic for the City of Victoria waterworks—scored the vital goal. “I just hammered it off the keeper and into the net,” he says. “It was so exciting.” The final score was 2-1 for Canada.

For the rest of the day (and night), a party followed the boys of Canada wherever they went. That included the home of St. John’s mayor, where a few players combined efforts to empty his worship’s fridge. Bruce Wilson, Team Canada’s captain at the time, has warm memories of it all. That it happened in Newfoundland seemed fitting. “It was one hundred per cent Canadian,” says Wilson. “The fact that we got the big result there was classic.” The comforts of a qualifying win at home would be a salve for the drama awaiting the Canadians on the world stage.


The Canadian team gathered in Florida in late May of 1986, just days before the start of the World Cup in Mexico—and barely a month after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Coach Waiters, well aware that his team lacked a scoring touch, was banking on a relentless, defensive style of play. One player who didn’t fit in was Branko Segota, a 24-year-old striker from Yugoslavia. In Waiters’s eyes, there were several marks against him: Segota, who mainly played indoor soccer, wasn’t used to bigger outdoor fields; he didn’t contribute on defence; and, inexplicably, Segota had allowed his passport to expire, which delayed his arrival in Florida. Waiters wanted to cut him—he’d done it before, in fact, when he left Segota off the Olympic squad. A vote among the senior players convinced Waiters to let Segota stay, but the conflict was an early crack in Team Canada’s cohesion.

Superstar Canadian striker Branko Segota overtakes Soviet defender Gennadi Morozov (Photo courtesy of Canada Soccer Archives)

The Canadians were to play their first game at the 31,000-seat Estadio Nou Camp in León, a city in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. They stayed at a spartan resort in nearby Abasolo, where the oppressive tropical heat weighed on the players—as did the looming threat of their opposition. For the opening round of play, Canada was placed in Group C, pitting them against France, Hungary and the Soviet Union. The French were the reigning European champions. Oddsmakers put Canada as a 1,000-to-1 longshot to win the tournament; the odds were 10 to 1 against them even scoring a goal.

Waiters tried to buck up his team’s confidence. Those were the days before video analysis, so he played them a tape of one of France’s matches—without the sound. Stripped of the excited announcers and cheering crowds, the French stars seemed more like equals. Then, playing a hunch, Waiters told his team’s starting goalkeeper, Tino Lettieri, that he’d be sitting out the first game in favour of 20-year-old Paul Dolan—the youngest goalkeeper, as someone told Dolan back then, ever to start in a World Cup. Lettieri, who, like Segota, largely played indoors, called the decision “shattering.” Another crack.

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Soccer aficionados around the world anticipated a slaughter. With “no world-class stars, little fan support and meager financial backing, Canada is one of the weakest teams in the tournament,” wrote the New York Times. Local support wasn’t much stronger: as the Canadians’ bus drove through León to the stadium on June 1, Mexican fans held up their fingers to indicate how many goals they expected the northern nobodies to give up to France. Most needed two hands.

The game didn’t go the way anyone had imagined. From the first kick, Canada smothered its opposition. By halftime, France had yet to score a goal. “We surprised the heck out of them,” says Bridge. “But we weren’t sure if we could hang on.” The air inside the stadium was thin, and the pitch was strangely bumpy, sapping strength from the players’ legs. Canada was having its own trouble scoring. At one point, Bridge had a clear header at a wide-open goal but sent it three metres wide. “I often think how my life might have changed,” he says, “if that had gone in.”

The team’s two most talented scorers, George Pakos and Branko Segota, had yet to see a minute of action. Pakos, despite scoring the goals that had gotten Canada into the World Cup, hadn’t been picked in the starting lineup. Waiters finally set Segota loose after a second-half goal from France’s Jean-Pierre Papin. The striker’s play dazzled spectators during his 11 minutes on the field, but it didn’t include any goals. “If I’d had another 10 or 15 minutes,” he said after the game, “it might have been a different outcome.” In the post-game crush of reporters, Waiters faced at least one pointed question from Mexican journalists about why he’d kept such a talented player on the bench. His answer was, essentially: it’s complicated.


one-goal loss to one of the best teams going hardly seemed like a failure to the Canadians. The players liked their chances heading into their second game against Hungary at Estadio Revolución. In its own first game, Hungary had been humiliated 6-0 by the Soviets. Alas, less than two minutes into the game, it was Hungary who scored first. Then, for the next 73 minutes, Team Canada dominated, barely letting Hungary sniff a scoring chance. But Canada’s offence was inept, and Waiters stuck to his defence-first plan, keeping Pakos welded to the bench and reserving Segota until the 55th minute—an echo of the fatal mistakes of Game 1. Hungary, seemingly beatable, won 2-0.

It was now all but impossible for Canada to advance in the tournament. In their third game, they were playing for pride. That the match happened to be against the Soviet Union, a country Canada had met often on the ice—most notably during the Summit Series of 1972—raised the stakes even higher. Bridge remembers the early June heat being so intolerable that the pre-game warm-up for the Canadians entailed merely strolling around the pitch to conserve energy. Meanwhile, the Soviets were running through high-speed drills. “They looked like racehorses,” Bridge says.

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The Soviets, who were guaranteed to advance regardless of the outcome, fielded their B-team. Stuck on the bench once again, Pakos was beside himself. “Oh, God, I’m not gonna get in this thing,” he thought. “It’s a wasted World Cup!” Finally, Waiters gave him the nod. Toronto sportswriter Wayne Parrish documented Pakos’s impact over the next 20-odd minutes: contact with the ball 15 times, two intercepted Soviet passes and four attempted tackles. He chased Soviet striker Igor Belanov—who had trained as a sprinter—down the left wing. In the game’s final minute, Pakos stopped him with a right-arm mash. “Being a Polish guy,” he told reporters, “I thought I’d give him one for my countrymen.” Like Canada, Pakos was an underdog unleashed.

The final score was 2-0, with Canada officially the first team eliminated from the World Cup. Though it ended with three losses, the country’s performance should have been a stepping stone. In a way, it was for George Pakos. He continued to play in Victoria and became a coach for the B.C. league’s Victoria Athletics. “Still to this day, I’m a little bit of a celebrity,” he says. “People pat me on the back, like, ‘There’s Team Canada!’ It really has impacted my life.”

The younger players regret that 1986 didn’t lead to more success. At just 20 years old, Paul Dolan anticipated playing in the next four tournaments. Bridge was counting on at least one. Then Guatemala knocked Canada out of the first round of qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup. In the lead-up to the 1994 tournament, Canada made it to intercontinental qualifiers and lost on penalty kicks to Australia. Each expulsion meant missing out on playing opportunities for the next several years.

And yet, as the national team’s disappointments continued, something else was happening. During qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, Canada’s games at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium and Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium drew large crowds. In 2002, Canada hosted the inaugural under-19 Women’s World Cup, where Christine Sinclair was named tournament MVP. Nearly 48,000 people turned out. “Not one single ticket available,” exclaimed FIFA president Sepp Blatter at a press conference. “Mamma mia!”

That success led FIFA to name Canada host of the 2007 under-20 World Cup, which spurred the construction of the National Soccer Stadium (now BMO Field) in Toronto. Toronto FC joined Major League Soccer, which led to MLS teams in Vancouver and Montreal and ever more airtime for soccer in Canada. More Canadian kids took up the game. More sponsorship money flowed in. And now, here we go again. It took 36 years to get another chance at the excitement of those moments in Mexico and, before that, St. John’s. Bridge has thought about getting the boys of ’86 together for the fun to come in Qatar. “We could have some good watch parties for sure.”


This article appears in print in the November 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.