I’m an older guy now but I was the youngest guy back then. 'The youngest goalkeeper ever to play in a FIFA World Cup,' they said. That was during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where Maradona scored the ‘Hand of God’ goal and where Canada made its only men’s World Cup appearance.
I look back at that day in early June of ‘86 and think that being naive about the importance of playing on the world’s biggest stage actually worked in my favour. Yes, I was very nervous, but I wasn’t frozen in the fear that I sometimes felt as an older goalkeeper, when the expectations were higher and the fear of making a single mistake would doom Canada’s hopes of winning the game.
Nobody gave us a chance to beat France, the reigning Euro ’84 champions and World Cup favourites, and before the game, fans were lining the streets outside Estadio Leon in Mexico, signaling seven or eight with their fingers as our bus drove by, meaning the number of goals we’d concede to Michel Platini and friends.
As it turns out, it was a mistake by the young keeper that led to the only goal of the game, and while I will forever be proud of my own effort and the way the team in front of me played that day, I always wonder what might have happened if we had just held on another 10 minutes for a famous draw.
Watching the current Canadian team, I don’t get any sense that they are weighed down by unreasonable expectations or past failures. I don’t see them going into games this November in Qatar the way I think many of my teammates and I felt in the 36 years since our lone World Cup appearance…more worried about trying not to lose than playing without fear and expecting to win.
I often thought that maybe I was alone in feeling the pressure of not wanting to fail for my country. But over the years, in conversations with past teammates, and players who I helped coach between 2003 and 2019, while I was one of the assistants with Canada’s Men’s Team, I learned that many players felt the same pressures.
The thrill of representing Canada was massive, but at the same time, the responsibility to do well for our country weighed so heavily on all of us. No one wanted to be the player who made the mistake that so often meant there was no coming back for Canada.
When I look back at the group who played in that era before this incredible recent run of qualifying games, I see a list of huge quality, but I also see a group who were never able to clear that last hurdle (or sometimes even the first hurdle) to get to the promised land of another World Cup.
October 2012 still burns in my memory. I swear that if we scored in the early stages of ‘that game’ against Honduras in Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano, 10 years ago, on not the one but two clear-cut chances we had inside 10 minutes, the result would have been so much different. But when we didn’t score and Honduras did…
I was so fortunate to have been asked to be part of the guard of honour to celebrate the current team, after their convincing win against Jamaica clinched World Cup qualification in Toronto. Several former Canadian players joined me and the first one I reunited with said “Can you imagine if we had this talent and this confidence…” Nothing more needed to be said.
Belief is a funny thing. It's not something a coach can just say to a player, or a line that can be shared by teammates. By definition, it has to actually be believed to work. It may have been said before, but I’m not convinced the belief was always there over the years.
This group is different. Their mentality is different. It doesn’t hurt that the quality of players in virtually every position is deeper and greater than at any time in Canada’s soccer history. But that quality and belief in each other as teammates just serves as one more reason to be confident that if you as a player, don’t have your best game on the day, there are 10 others who more likely than not, will outplay their direct opponent and give Canada its best shot of finally winning a game at the FIFA World Cup this fall in Qatar.
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Top large image: The Canadian men's national team sing the 'O Canada' before playing the United States during a CONCACAF FIFA World Cup Qualifier soccer match at Tim Hortons Field in January of 2022. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
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