“It’s not just an expression, we actually are rubbing shoulders with among the best players in the world.”
When Canada touches the pitch at the FIFA World Cup for the first time in 36 years, they will do so as big underdogs, facing one of the favourites to win the whole thing.
Belgium, after all, are the second ranked team in the world. And for good reason.
While much has changed since 1986, the situation is nearly identical to the last time that the Red & White made their debut on the world’s biggest stage.
On that day in Mexico, a resilient group of Canadians faced an absolute juggernaut in France, the reigning European champions.
Paul Dolan is the club’s all-time leader in saves, clean sheets, and wins from his time with the Vancouver 86ers. But on that day, he was a fresh-faced 20-year-old starting a World Cup opener in net with no professional experience.
“I see some parallels to the game between Canada and France to start the ’86 World Cup and this opening game for Canada against the best team in their group, Belgium. Very similar in terms of teams coming in that have a lot of expectations on them, playing a team in Canada that might be considered an underdog.”
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
Just like in 2022, a successful qualification run captured the imagination of Canadians. The hype was building in the months and weeks leading up to the start of the tournament in Mexico.
But when they got set to take the field for the first game in León, that was when it all became real.
“The tunnel is so small that we’re shoulder to shoulder,” remembers Dolan. “It’s not just an expression, we actually are rubbing shoulders with among the best players in the world, including Michel Platini.”
Platini was the three-time reigning Ballon d’Or winner in 1983, 1984, and 1985 – an award given to the best player in the world. He was the leading scorer at UEFA Euro 1984 with nine goals. He was a star at Juventus, the top goalscorer in Serie A for three consecutive seasons. He had scored at a rate of a goal every second game throughout his career and had already led France to the semifinals of the previous World Cup.
But Dolan is quick to point out that it was far from a one man show.
“Jean-Pierre Papin at one point went on to be a Ballon d’Or winner [in 1991], Dominique Rocheteau, some of the players on that team were right up there among the best. Even though there wasn’t quite the awareness at that time – you didn’t have every single game available on television or streaming – everyone knew who this team was, who their players were, and the fact that we were going to step on the field with one of the best teams in the world.”
STAR STRUCK? NO WAY. ROOSTER STRUCK? ALMOST.
It would have been easy to be in awe. But that’s just not the Canadian mentality.
“I felt excited rather than nervous, which I felt was a good thing,” recalled Dolan. “It helped me perform a bit better. I think the rest of the Canadian team felt that way as well.”
For Colin Miller, much of that came down to the star-filled domestic league where the majority of them had played – the North American Soccer League (NASL).
“I think it was very significant. I was very privileged as the youngest player to play in the NASL, so it gave me a real start at 17-years of age. Certainly the quality of players that I was fortunate to play with and against was incredible, it was an absolute education. The quality of foreign players that had come into the league at that time were world renowned players.”
And the feeling amongst many on that Canadian team is that it was that club level that really helped prepare them for the international level.
“I can actually remember a game that I played with the Toronto Blizzard against the New York Cosmos, and we were running out at Giants Stadium as a 17-year-old boy, 35,000 people. And I’m playing directly against Johan Neeskens. It was just incredible. Franz Beckenbauer was playing centre back. So you couldn’t help but learn.”
Neeskens is widely considered one of the best midfielders of all-time, and was a runner-up with the Netherlands in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. Beckenbauer won the Ballon d’Or in 1972 and 1976, and the 1972 European Championship and 1974 FIFA World Cup with West Germany.
However for Paul Dolan, while those experiences benefitted his teammates, he never got to experience the NASL.
Self described as “the biggest NASL fan there ever was”, he was a Whitecaps season ticket holder from 1976 onwards.
But just when he progressed enough in his young career to play in the league himself and got drafted sixth overall by the Whitecaps in 1984 from Port Moody High School, the league folded.
So Canada head coach Tony Waiters got creative to keep Dolan and others prepared.
“We had a few players who were semi-professional or unattached, so to speak,” explained Dolan. “Young players like Jamie Lowery, George Pakos, myself, who weren’t playing professionally at the time. It was a matter of getting up to speed with the national team almost as a club team. Tony Waiters took us to North Africa, to the Caribbean, and we played a lot of exhibition games to come together as a team.”
Not having pro experience could have led to nerves on the world's biggest stage, yet Dolan was unrattled facing the mighty French.
Even through one of the strangest moments in World Cup history.
“One of the funniest things that happened during that game was that the French supporters in behind me on one side of the stadium, they were packed in there, and one of the traditions I guess for them was to throw their national symbol, the cockerel, the rooster that they threw on the field as I was about to take a goal kick. So I stood there with my hands on the hips like what am I supposed to do here. I wasn’t going to try to pick it up. I think it had it’s legs tied together so it couldn’t fly away or run away. The linesman came out with his flag and scooped it up and away we went with the rest of the game, and I thought that was kind of funny.”
Rooster aside, there was a game to be played. France against Canada. Surely a mismatch? A blowout?
But that was not how it played out.
Through 75 minutes, the score remained the same as they'd started, 0-0.
“I don’t think France overlooked us,” reflected Dolan. “Although it could be said that going toe-to-toe through 79 minutes, perhaps they thought it might have been a little bit easier than it was.”
Finally, goliath did find their goal. It was Papin who would ultimately get one past Dolan.
But that was as much as they would get.
A 1-0 defeat, but a valiant effort against the cream of the crop, a result that surprised many around the footy world.
PAST TO PRESENT
So what does that game in 1986 mean for the Canadian team of today stepping onto the field on Wednesday against the likes of Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, and Thibaut Courtois?
“Well that was 36 years ago,” reminds Dolan. “But I think Belgium is going to be in for the same situation against this young Canadian team that’s going to prove to some people that they’re one of the strongest teams certainly out of Concacaf, and an up-and-coming team before we host in 2026.”
Players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David already face world class talent on the regular, so this will just be another game.
But like their predecessors from 1986, don’t expect the players who have stepped foot in MLS against the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Wayne Rooney, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Kaká, Steven Gerrard, and Gareth Bale to be in awe either.
“I think that’s one of the things that MLS has really helped with Canadian players in particular,” concluded Dolan. “I honestly think it’s a big reason why Canada has been successful in this World Cup qualification cycle, is because you’ve got players playing at a top level now, getting lots of minutes in and having the opportunity to then transform that into the national team.”
And regardless of the result, Dolan encourages Canada's current generation not to lose sight of the moment.
“I feel that I was fortunate that during the French game that I played in, I took the moment to realize what an opportunity this was and how much I wanted to enjoy it. So rather than just have the moment pass you by, to know that you’re at the biggest stage, finally Canada has qualified again, and to cherish that. And while in the moment, take it all in that you’re playing in the biggest tournament in the world amongst the best players and against one of the best teams.”