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Gerry Gray, left, and his Canadian teammates battled Sergei Rodionov and the Soviet Union in 1986. ((Michael King/Getty Images))

Canada Day tends to put one in a reflective mood, especially soccer fans in this country who have been deprived the pleasure of seeing Canada compete at the World Cup in South Africa.

Some might be contemplating the future of the national team and whether or not it will qualify for the 2014 tournament in Brazil. But more than likely the majority of fans will be looking back in time — to 1986, to be specific.

It's hard to believe that 24 years have passed since the Canadian national team qualified for the World Cup for the first — and to this day the only — time in its history.

Mexico was where Canada rubbed shoulders with soccer's elite, but before heading south there was the small matter of qualifying for the tournament, which was achieved with a 2-1 win over Honduras on Sept. 14, 1985 in St. John's.

"The was the greatest day of my soccer career," Tony Waiters, who served as coach of Canada's national team from 1981-86, told CBCSports.ca.

"We knew going against the Central Americans that we wouldn’t out-skill them, so we had to play to our strengths and make it very difficult for the opposition."

Bobby Lenarduzzi, a defender on the team, can recall the dying moments of the game, which "seemed to pass so slowly" that he thought the match would never end.

"The ball was in their half and I knew time was winding down, so I was starting to allow myself the excitement of waiting for the final whistle," Lenarduzzi said. "And when it went it was a little surreal — we finally managed to do it and qualify."

Qualifying was the first step down the pathway to Mexico. The second step was an intense training camp held in Colorado. Waiters put his players through a gruelling series of practice sessions, held at altitude to acclimatize them to the conditions in Mexico.   Waiters emphasized hard work and felt that, if nothing else, his squad of former NASL stars and players who plied their trade in the Major Indoor Soccer League would not be beaten because they were unfit.

"We certainly weren’t the best team in the tournament by a long way, in terms of skill. But I’d say we were the fittest team," said Waiters, a former goalkeeper who earned five caps for the English national team during his playing career.

"We had great commitment from the players. Bruce Wilson was the captain and he was a fitness fanatic. Bobby Lenarduzzi was a great trainer. Paul James was the best of all in terms of endurance and Randy Ragan had great commitment."

At the time, Waiters' conservative tactical approach to the game didn’t exactly go over well with the players.

"There were afew of us who would have preferred to try to be a little willing to play out of the back," Lenarduzzi admitted. "But I think looking back at it now, Tony did exactly the right thing and what we needed to do. He had us minimize the risk and made sure we were well-organized defensively so that we knew what we needed to do when the other team had the ball.

"When we had possession it was about getting the ball to the front man and trying to get the defence turned. We didn’t have the kind of players who could play the ball around. We played the percentages and it was the right way to go."

Waiters preached a conservative playing style because he didn’t want a repeat from four years earlier, when fellow CONCACAF side El Salvador suffered one of the heaviest defeats in World Cup history.

"My biggest concern going to the World Cup was that we were going to be blown out of the water. El Salvador went to Spain in 1982 and lost 10-1 to Hungary, so I wanted to avoid that."

Star-struck

First up for Canada in Mexico was a match against France, then the reigning European champions. It was a French side that was touted among the tournament favourites, and boasted world-class players the calibre of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse.

Waiters wasn't star-struck, though, and played up his team’s chances before the game.

"I downplayed the opposition. I got a video of France and showed it to the players without the TV commentary, and pointed out their mistakes and errors. I was trying to make the point that we’re all human beings and that they could be beaten," Waiters said. 

Waiters wasn't in awe of the French, but the same couldn’t be said for his players.

"I'll never forget standing in the tunnel [of the stadium] prior to the game against France," Lenarduzzi recalled. "To look across the line to see Platini, Tigana, Giresse — they were all players that I had watched play, and here we were going out to play them, and it wasn't a friendly. It was a game that had something at stake."

Few gave the boys in red and white much of a chance against Les Bleus, including the local fans.

"Prior to the game Mexican fans held up their fingers to indicate what the score would be," Lenarduzzi remembered.

"They needed both hands for France. They put up eight fingers, and we didn't have any, so everyone assumed we were going to get hammered.

"The fact that we didn't … it allowed us to walk away with our heads held high."

Indeed, in the searing mid-afternoon Mexican heat, the Canadians came out attacking against the heavily favoured French, and more than once pinned Les Bleus back deep in their own end.

Canada came within a breath of scoring on several occasions before France took control of the game and eventually scored in the 78th minute. It was a brave effort by the Canadians as the French escaped with a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to a goal by Jean-Pierre Papin.

"We thought we had them on the rack just before they scored. Branko Segota had a few shots off and I was making some overlapping runs," said Lenarduzzi.

"Unfortunately, I factored on France’s goal. I was on the goal side of the guy who knocked the ball back across into the middle for Peppin to head in. I assumed [goalkeeper] Paul Dolan was going to get it. He came for the cross and I saw him come out, and then I just stopped. But if I have kept going and anticipated him missing it, I would have just headed the ball out for a corner.

"Paul kept us in the game early on and throughout the game. He was fantastic so you couldn’t fault him at that point.

One that got away

Confidence was high amongst the Canadian players after the France game, but the team suffered a major letdown in its next encounter, a 2-0 loss to Hungary.

"That was a classic case of everyone was wound up for France because everyone thought we were going get stuffed. And we watched Hungary get stuffed by Russia 6-0 in their first match and they looked terrible," Lenarduzzi said.

"And then all of a sudden, we went into the game thinking we were the favourites instead of doing what we did in the first game, which was putting our head down, doing the work and playing the percentages. They scored an early goal and we had our chances but that’s the one I think we let get away."

Canada's World Cup campaign ended with a 2-0 loss to the Soviet Union, as it bowed out of the tournament without scoring a single goal.

Not that the Canadians didn’t have chances — Lenarduzzi squandered a glorious opportunity that he should have buried from close range late in the match against the Soviets.

"I was up for a corner kick and the ball went over my head. I turned around and their defender and one our guys both headed it at the same time," remembered the former defender.

"It bounced down right to my feet and I turned and, thinking I had to get the shot off quick, I ended up doing it too quickly and catching the ground in front of the ball and I never got anything on it."

The fact that Canada didn’t score at the tournament ranks as a big disappointment, but the1986 team can take pride in the fact their performance in Mexico inspired an entire generation of Canadians to take up the sport.

Foremost among them was Jason de Vos, a native of London, Ont., who played professionally in England and Scotland, and who served as captain of the Canadian national team, earning 49 caps between 1997 and 2001.

"Watching the Canadian players, most ofwhom I had never heard of, do battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary and the legendary French team was an experience that shaped my career," said de Vos, who retired in 2007 to become a soccer commentator for CBC Sports.

"It motivated me to put in long hours of travelling and training, to forego the usual teenage life in favour of the more single-minded lifestyle of an athlete." 

That's the greatest legacy of Canada’s 1986 team, one that makes Lenarduzzi extremely proud and feel as though the hard work of he and his teammates wasn't in vain.

"It’s nice tohear that, because you never knew what kind of impact you were having," said Lenarduzzi. "To hear all those years later that we inspired someone like Jason, who went on to have a great career, that's gratifying."