Thanks to an exciting and talented group of players highlighted by Alphonso Davies, the Canadian men’s team has a legitimate chance to qualify for next year's FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Canada is currently fighting its way through the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, the region covering North and Central America and the Caribbean. If Canada finishes in the top three and at the end of the eight-nation, round-robin group next March, it will end a drought that dates back to 1986 when it made its only World Cup appearance.
The Canadians haven’t progressed to the last round of the CONCACAF qualifiers since the buildup for the 1998 World Cup in France. Back then, it was hard enough for Canada to play superior nations on the pitch in the qualifying process. The obstacles they faced off the field in their travels - including tussles with armed guards and fans throwing bags of urine at them - were just as harrowing.
This is the story of the last Canadian team that came close to qualifying for the World Cup.
Canada entered the CONCACAF qualifiers in the third round, grouped together with Panama, Cuba and El Salvador. Everybody played each other home and away, with the top two moving on. Canada won five of its six games with one draw from Aug. 30 to Dec. 15, 1996, to finish first and advance to the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, known as The Hex, alongside second-place El Salvador.
CRAIG FORREST, Canadian goalkeeper: We cruised through that group. We played really well. We were scoring goals, conceded just one, beat El Salvador twice, so we were confident going into The Hex.
CARLO CORAZZIN, Canadian forward: I can’t ever remember going on such a sustained run before with the national team where we earned result after result - and convincing results - and just plowed through everybody.
FORREST: I got red-carded [ejected] in Panama. It was the hottest game I’ve ever played in and the red card was ridiculous, so I was pissed when I walked off the field and down the tunnel. A military policeman was blocking the door to the locker-room and I tried to push him out of the way. It became a big shoving match with other Panamanian officials getting involved and I just grabbed at the guy’s rifle. This other military policeman drew his gun and stuck it right in my face. Not the smartest move I ever made.
Canada’s men’s team had to put up with a lot of chicanery during their previous visits to Central American countries. Local fans were known to gather in large numbers and make a lot of noise outside the team’s hotel so the Canadian players couldn’t sleep the night before a game. Things didn’t go smoothly for Canada on its travels in the third round, either.
CORAZZIN: Something happened on every stop along the way, whether they purposely delayed getting our bags off the airplane in Panama, and then the bus was 45 minutes late arriving at the airport to take us to the hotel. In El Salvador, we were on the 12th floor of the hotel and on the morning of the game, sure as shit, the elevators don’t work. So, we have to walk all the way down in the morning, then all the way back up after breakfast, and then all the way back down again when we have to go to the stadium. After the game is over and we return to the hotel, guess what? The elevators magically work! The fire alarms would go off at 3 a.m. One time, the bus that arrived at the airport to pick us up was an old yellow school bus, with all the windows busted out and no AC. There was always something. Nothing ever went smoothly.
Canada was off to The Hex, an six-nation group where everybody played each other home and away. The top three teams automatically qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Having gone unbeaten in the third round and outscored its opponents 10-1, Canada was confident it could qualify for the World Cup.
CORAZZIN: We felt like we could go into the final round and show that at least we were the third-best team in CONCACAF. That was a strong El Salvador team at the time with (Raul) Diaz and (Jose Mauricio) Cienfuegos, and we went down there and won 2-0, so it gave us some belief that we could make some noise in The Hex.
EDDY BERDUSCO, Canadian forward: Mexico and the U.S. were the clear top two teams in CONCACAF. So, it was a tough task because you knew they were going to grab two of the three berths. It was just a matter of battling it out with the rest of the pack. But at the start of The Hex we did have an expectation that we were going to qualify
The schedule makers didn’t do Canada any favours, as its first two games were on the road against the two best teams in the region: Mexico and the United States.
BOBBY LENARDUZZI, Canadian coach: The feeling was pretty high amongst the group after we cruised through the third round, but we got dealt the worst possible hand having to start in Mexico and the U.S.
BERDUSCO: We didn’t get off on the right foot. Starting off in Mexico was rough. It’s tough playing there and Canada has always struggled at Estadio Azteca (in Mexico City).
FORREST: That was a stinging blow to us, having to play those two road games right out of the gate. We got f----d over.
Canada opened The Hex on March 2, 1997 vs. Mexico at Estadio Azteca. The Azteca is one of the most venerable cathedrals in world soccer, having hosted the 1970 and 1986 World Cup final. It is also one of the most difficult places to play for visiting teams. With a capacity of close to 100,000, the noise from the fans inside can be deafening. Also, Mexico held its games in the afternoon, so opponents would feel the full effects of the baking sun. The stadium is roughly 2,000 metres above sea level, and the altitude - combined with the heat, and poor air quality of Mexico City - makes it even difficult on opposing players.
CORRAZIN: When we played that first game, Nick Dasovic put a Breathe Right strip on his nose thinking it was going to help him. He was sick for three straight days afterwards because he was breathing a lot more in and way quicker, and got nauseous.
BERDUSCO: The altitude takes a lot out of you; you really feel it, it’s tough just breathing.
CORRAZIN: It’s the loudest place I’ve ever played. I remember passing the ball and literally screaming at a teammate 10 yards away because he couldn’t hear me, and that was in the warmup. It was like a bee hive with a constant hum, and it got louder and louder as the game went on. It was ear piercing.
FORREST: As a goalkeeper, the altitude didn’t affect me too much like it did the outfield players. I remember going into the locker-room at halftime and looking around and the boys were just gassed. (Nick) Dasovic had foam coming out of his mouth, and guys were puking. They were absolutely f----d. Guys were coughing shit up after the game and had to go on intravenous drips. Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen a bunch of exhausted and sore players like that in my life. (laughs)
Incredibly, the game was tied 0-0 going into halftime. But Carlos Hermosillo scored in the 51st minute for the Mexicans, and that opened the floodgates. Mexico cruised to a comfortable 4-0 win.
LENARDUZZI: I was walking off the field at the end of the first half and (Mexican coach) Bora Milutinović said to me, “How are we not beating you?”
Mexico killed us. They just battered us but they didn’t score and their fans were booing them, so I was feeling pretty good at the half. But I can’t look back and think the final score didn’t reflect how the game played out. It actually did, and we could have lost by more.
CORAZZIN: Alex Bunbury had a clear breakaway on the Mexican goalkeeper after they went up 1-0, but he had too much time on the ball and over-thought it and he didn’t convert. Then they turned around and scored, and we just deflated.
Next up for Canada was a road game against the United States on March 16, 1997 at Stanford University. The Reds trailed after only seven minutes and never recovered, losing 3-0.
CORAZZIN: We went down early and dug ourselves a hole. It was two slaughterings in a row to start things off and it was like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be tough from this point on.’
LENARDUZZI: We didn’t get off to a good start. Craig (Forrest) gave up a penalty, so they scored early, and it was more of the same of what we faced in Mexico. They were all over us.
CORAZZIN: A big Canadian crowd travelled down to Stanford, and I remember the disappointment I felt in letting them down. There were a lot of Canadian fans who waited for us after the game, and I felt bad because we just got hammered and were never really in it. That’s what stands out to me, is that we just let down all those travelling fans.
LENARDUZZI: There were Canadian fans after the game who were chanting for me to be fired. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. Jesus, things have turned fast on me.’
Canada’s next two games were at home in Burnaby, B.C., at Swangard Stadium against El Salvador on April 6 and Jamaica on April 27, 1997. Both matches ended in 0-0 draws, which meant Canada hadn’t scored, and collected just two out of a possible 12 points from its first four contests.
CORAZZIN: We didn’t make any hay in those games. Even though we were beat by the U.S. and Mexico, we thought these were two home games against beatable teams, so if we won we’d be back on track. We stumbled and fumbled our way through that Jamaica game and couldn’t score again. Our backs were against the wall and we knew it.
LENARDUZZI: We came out flying against El Salvador. We had them on the ropes and just needed to punch one home. But we ended up drawing and that’s where we lost a big chance to get ourselves back on track.
FORREST: We were absolutely devastated. We outplayed them, both El Salvador and Jamaica. Really, we needed four to six points after the start we had, so to only get two points was a huge disappointment.
Canada finally got off the mark in its fifth match, earning a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on June 1 in Edmonton courtesy of Eddy Berdusco’s goal in the 68th minute. The victory gave Canada renewed hope.
BERDUSCO: Fernando Aguiar went on a run down the wing, and got to the end line before he crossed the ball across the six-yard box and I ran onto it and finished it off. It was crazy, getting swarmed by (teammates) Martin Nash and Garret Kush. After that game, there was a bit more belief. We still knew it was going to be tough, but there was a sense of, ‘this could be a possibility.’
LENARDUZZI: I don’t remember morale being low before the Edmonton game, but realistically we had to be thinking, ‘Shit, we’ve really dug ourselves a hole here.’ It was a big goal and big win, because that put us back in the mix. We had five points and were in a logjam with several teams in the standings, so we got ourselves back into it.
CORAZZIN: The win put us back on track at the halfway point with five points after five games. Not the best start, but we were still in it. We still believed, we still had the conviction that we could get that third spot.
It was a huge win for the Canadians, but they couldn’t fully capitalize on the momentum because their next game wasn’t scheduled until Sept. 7, 1997, in Jamaica. They ended up losing 1-0 in Kingston.
CORAZZIN: That’s the game I remember the most. That was the backbreaker. We needed to win in Jamaica to get ourselves back in the hunt.
FORREST: We played fairly well and deserved a win down there in difficult conditions, because it was hot as hell. They weren’t the greatest side, so that was a damaging result.
The Canadians were still alive, but barely clinging to life when their seventh match of The Hex took them to El Salvador on Sept. 14. The day before the match, the Canadians went to Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador for their final training session, but the doors to the stadium were locked.
Team manager Les Wilson tried to pry open the doors, but was met by two guards who were carrying machine guns. Wilson eventually managed to get the team inside the stadium for its practice, but not before getting into it with the guards.
FORREST: They were trying to f--- us over, and Les had been dealing with this kind of crap for years, so he just had enough. He walked up and got in their faces, pulled on their machine guns and started yelling at them. They were speaking in Spanish, pretending not to understand what Les was trying to say. But Les just pushed through them, looked back at us all on the bus and yelled, “We’re going in.”
LENARDUZZI: It was very brave from Les. But he could have started an international incident.
BERDUSCO: Les would do anything for the team. When you see guards with machine guns in front of you, yeah, it was pretty scary. But that was Les. He didn’t care. He was fearless.
More “fun” awaited the Canadians the next day during the game. Fans in San Salvador are infamous for throwing a slew of projectiles at opposing players, including plastic bags of urine and soiled diapers.
LENARDUZZI: Alan Errington, my assistant coach, was on the bench and fortunately he was sitting far enough away from me that I didn’t get splattered. Alan got hit by a urine bag right on his leg. I can remember seeing diapers come flying down behind us, and I’m guessing they must have been a few days old because the smell was God awful.
BERDUSCO: They were throwing bags of urine at us whenever we came close to the sidelines. Even before the game, they started in on us. They were throwing rocks at our bus when we pulled up.
CORAZZIN: Mark Watson and I left the hotel after dinner to go for a walk. We were wearing track suits and this street kid came up and asked us for our jackets. Watty wasn’t going to give it to him, but he unzipped his jacket and took off his white t-shirt that had a Canada logo on it and gave it to the kid. The kid was just over the moon: he’s got no shoes on, and wearing these rags.
Come gameday during warmups, above our dugout, there’s the same kid hanging onto the chain link fence, the shirt is no longer white - it’s grimy and filthy - and he’s swearing at us, spitting at us, and throwing piss bags at us with the rest of the fans. Watty looks up at this kid and starts freaking out on him. Watty just went nuts. Away from the game, they’re wonderful people. But on game days, you’re nobody to them, and this kid turned on Watty, and Watty was absolutely devastated. At the other side of that stadium, they'd go at you much worse. They’d throw batteries and rocks.
FORREST: It was a really desperate country at the time. The civil war had ended a few years earlier, so you’re going to the stadium and you’re driving past shot up and burnt out buildings. It was a rough place to play at the time. And their fans were very hostile, and they’d throw anything that wasn’t nailed down at you. But I loved playing there - I loved that atmosphere and the passion of their fans.
As far as the game went, El Salvador took the lead before Alex Bunbury netted the equalizer in the 25th minute. The teams were tied going into halftime, but the hosts scored two early goals in the second half, and added another in the 88th minute.
There were still three games remaining, and even though the 4-1 loss didn’t officially eliminate Canada from World Cup contention, the players knew it was over.
BERDUSCO: El Salvador came to play that game, moving the ball around, attacking, and they were all over us. It was hard for us to put anything together, especially with that crowd.
LENARDUZZI: That result in El Salvador, against a team we beat twice in the previous round, it was like, ‘Shit, the wheels have just come off.’
FORREST: To lose 4-1, the guys at that point knew it was all over. We were totally beaten up and there was no way back for us.
CORAZZIN: To get hammered in El Salvador, our hearts had been wrenched out of our chests. I remember sitting in the airport the next day. I was with Mark Watson and Frank Yallop, and I said, “It’s impossible now.” The balloon had burst and we knew it was over.
LENARDUZZI: What made things worse was that when we left the hotel for the airport, they didn’t have enough room on the bus for our bags, so they had some guys take them and follow us in their trucks. We get to the airport, and the players open up their bags, and they’re missing stuff. Those guys robbed us! So, we lost the game, and then to top it off, we had our pockets picked on our way home.
Game No. 8 for Canada was back in Edmonton on Oct. 12, 1997. It snowed in the days leading up to the match.
CORAZZIN: The Mexicans were just beside themselves. I watched them train a few days before the game and they looked like abominable snowmen - they were so wrapped up they couldn’t even run because it was so cold.
LENARDUZZI: The snow didn’t pack, but there was a dusting of it on the ground. And the Mexicans were nothing like the team we played in Azteca. They hated the cold.
Down 1-0, Canada levelled the score in the 56th minute when Corazzin scored, and then took the lead six minutes later through Alex Bunbury.
CORRAZIN: It was a ball that was crossed into the box and someone flicked it on, and I just took a chance and gambled that it would come to the back post, and it fell there and I smashed it in.
But the Mexicans notched a late goal, and the game ended 2-2. It was a credible result for the Canadians, but they were officially eliminated from World Cup contention.
LENARDUZZI: We were up 2-1 in the second half, and then they ended up getting a shitty late goal to tie it. Had we won, our chances of qualifying would have still been slim, but I could have said something to rally the troops for the last two games. There was nothing left to say, though.
FORREST: As good as Mexico was back then, they weren’t a good away side. They only won one game away from home in The Hex. So we felt we could get a result. We nearly got the win, and it was a fun experience seeing the Mexicans shiver and deal with the cold, like we always had to deal with the afternoon heat whenever we played at Azteca.
Canada’s penultimate game of The Hex was against the U.S. on Nov. 9, 1997 back in Burnaby. The Americans needed a win and help elsewhere in order to go to the World Cup.
The U.S. strolled to a 3-0 victory, and found out the other results went their way. They celebrated with about 2,000 travelling American fans at Swangard Stadium as they clinched a World Cup berth.
CORAZZIN: It got really, really ugly. There were a lot of yellow cards, there was a lot of chippiness, a lot of brashness from the U.S. The game had no rhythm to it - stop, start, stop, start.
LENARDUZZI: Hosting them here and having them qualify on Canadian soil -- nothing against the Americans, but it left a sour taste in my mouth.
The end of the line for Canada came on Nov. 16, 1997 when it closed out The Hex with a 3-1 loss in Costa Rica. While Mexico, the U.S. and Jamaica qualified for the World Cup, Canada finished in last place in The Hex with six points (one win, six losses, and three draws), and boasted both the worst attack (just five goals scored) and defence (20 goals against). Lenarduzzi resigned after the loss in Costa Rica.
LENARDUZZI: I told (then Canada Soccer CEO) Kevan Pipe before The Hex started that if we didn’t qualify that I was done. I kept my word because it was time, and it was an amicable split.
BERDUSCO: We went down there just looking to try to save face. But the guys knew it was going to be a tough game because we were already out.
LENARDUZZI: What made it worse was Costa Rica was already eliminated too, so there was nothing to play for. It was just a flat, drab game that had nothing to excite anybody.
Canada rebounded from its last place showing in The Hex by winning the Gold Cup (the CONCACAF Championship) in 2000, but it failed in each of the next five World Cup qualifying cycles.
In 2021, the most talented Canadian team in history has again made it to the final stages of the CONCACAF qualifiers and is looking to punch its ticket for next year’s World Cup.
FORREST: You look at the team today, we couldn’t compare. This team has depth, and options and threats and quality at every position.
LENARDUZZI: To not get back to the final round in CONCACAF until now, I mean, wow. We didn’t even come close, and we had some pretty good players on those teams. But nothing like the group we have right now. The flair and fearlessness, and with guys like (Alphonso) Davies, (Jonathan) David and (Tajon) Buchanan, we’ve never had a team this talented and dangerous.
All photos by Reuters