The Voyageurs

By Joshua Kloke

The Voyageurs
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Tracing Canadian men’s soccer’s emergence from global obscurity to international powerhouse, featuring insight from star players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David and manager John Herdman.

The last time Canada qualified for a men’s World Cup was in 1986. For a generation ... Read more


Overview

Tracing Canadian men’s soccer’s emergence from global obscurity to international powerhouse, featuring insight from star players like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David and manager John Herdman.

The last time Canada qualified for a men’s World Cup was in 1986. For a generation afterwards, the Canadian national men’s soccer team struggled in obscurity, an afterthought in a country that was not yet soccer-mad. The twenty-first century brought a wave of soccer passion and expertise to this frozen country — and a crop of new superstar players who lifted the forgotten team into the international spotlight.

Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David are now internationally known names, and soccer a national obsession. Through interviews with players and coaches, Joshua Kloke tracks the rise of men’s soccer in Canada from darkness to the world stage in 2022. This is the inside story of how the best team in Canadian soccer history grew from disappointment to international fame.

Joshua Kloke

Joshua Kloke is a staff writer at The Athletic, where he covers Canadian soccer and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is the author of Come on You Reds: The Story of Toronto FC. He lives in Hamilton.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 -
The Rock, the Rooster, and Respectability: Canada’s Run to the 1986 World Cup
Paul Dolan, standing shoulder to shoulder with the reigning European champions in a narrow tunnel, wipes a bead of sweat from his brow as he waits to take the pitch at Estadio León deep in central Mexico.
The sweltering midday heat and the raucous crowd are considerably unlike what the lanky twenty-year-old goalkeeper is used to, since he has spent the majority of his professional career playing for a few hundred people here and there with the Edmonton Brick Men, a franchise named after their sponsor, Canadian furniture warehouse store The Brick.
Standing beside France’s men’s national soccer team moments before starting in goal for Canada’s first-ever World Cup match, Dolan is nonplussed.
He peeks behind him to see Bob Lenarduzzi, the more worldly but still wide-eyed Canadian defender, fawning over the players in dark blue jerseys next to him: Michel Platini, the attacking midfielder fresh off winning three straight Ballon d’Or trophies as the best soccer player on the planet. He stands near Jean-Pierre Papin, emerging as one of France’s most potent goal scorers. And Papin stands near Dominique Rocheteau, the dynamic winger dominating with Paris Saint-Germain, the reigning French champions.
Outside the tunnel, Canadian forward Dale Mitchell, not named to the starting lineup, is waiting to see his teammates, their white jerseys uncharacteristically emblazoned with the country they call home, emerge.
Oddsmakers confidently placed Canada toward the bottom of the pile of the twenty-four teams likely to win the tournament. Yet as Mitchell’s teammates walk out into the sun, he is overcome by emotion.
“That’s the moment when you realize it: you’re playing in a World Cup, against one of the best teams in the world,” said Mitchell. “That moment is more significant than any other. ”
But Dolan can only shrug and wipe away the sweat that had fallen to his small moustache. Though he, the goalkeeper for the Brick Men, a team many skilled French pâtissiers might have been able to play for, is about to take part in the first game in Group C at the 1986 World Cup, he is not succumbing to the moment.
“I didn’t feel overhyped,” said Dolan, looking back, “because we were such huge underdogs. ”
If there were ever a sentiment to describe the Canadian men’s national team, both up to that point in the program and in the subsequent decades, Dolan has crystallized it. Though this Canadian team had ascended to the highest peak of international soccer, they had done so without the most well-thought-out map.
“We knew we weren’t as talented as any of the teams in our group,” said Canadian midfielder Mike Sweeney, whose red, curly mop often matched the colour of his national team jersey.
They were a collection of players and coaches who had caught a few breaks and made the most of the opportunities they did have, sure. When considering the growth cycle of the sport in Canada, they were far from a finished product. Despite the fact that they were playing alongside the world’s best, soccer remained a fringe sport in their home country.
And it was the lack of a roadmap that would, in no small part, plague the men’s national team for a generation afterward as multiple teams tried, and failed, to reach that same peak. But in reaching the height of international soccer in 1986, those players and coaches blazed a trail for future generations to follow, piece by piece, one mistake and one small victory at a time.
···
Before Dolan and his bearded teammates arrived in Estadio León, they had to do what no Canadian side had done before, and what no Canadian side did in the subsequent eight World Cup cycles: actually qualify for the World Cup.
The Confederation of North, Central America, and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) was the FIFA governing body that the Canada Soccer Association (CSA) fell under. Mexico, traditional heavyweights of Concacaf, gained an automatic berth in the 1986 tournament as hosts. The remaining eighteen teams in the region began their journey to the World Cup through the 1985 Concacaf championship, a qualification process that took over a year to unfold. Canada advanced to the final round of the tournament with Costa Rica and Honduras, with the top team to book their ticket to Mexico after each team had played both home and away matches against each of the others.
By playing no-nonsense, kick-and-run soccer, Canada went undefeated in the first three games. Canada’s last game in the round would determine its fate. Canada would qualify with either a win or a draw in the final game against Honduras.
Canada’s failure to qualify for the 1982 World Cup still lingered. The entire final round of qualification for that tournament had taken place in Honduras, who qualified. Had Canada been able to earn just one more point from the five games they did play, they would have qualified themselves.
With the 1985 match scheduled for mid-September, Canada’s head coach Tony Waiters wanted to give his team every advantage possible. His idea of gamesmanship meant hoping some harsh winds, low temperatures, and unfamiliar surroundings would throw the Honduras national team off their game, while making the Canadians feel at home. So, Waiters demanded that the game be played off the beaten track. The knowledge that qualifying for the World Cup would land the CSA roughly one million in television revenue sharing from FIFA was a factor in his taking extreme measures to qualify.
The CSA agreed in principle but couldn’t have imagined just how far Waiters had in mind: the literal edge of the continent, at King George V Park in St. John’s, Newfoundland, just a short drive from Cape Spear’s historic lighthouse and the easternmost point of North America. Staging the game there would not come cheap, and CSA would be on the hook for it if their team didn’t qualify, which only added to the sense of desperation.
There wasn’t much dialogue during negotiations for the Honduras match. Waiters, a well-spoken and commanding figure, was adamant. Having played and coached extensively in England, as well as being one of the faces of a surprise North American Soccer League (NASL) Soccer Bowl championship with the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1979, his voice carried
weight. His sometimes brash personality did as well.
When the Canadians arrived a full week ahead of the match, however, they found a set-up that didn’t exactly remind them of Old Trafford.
“They literally had to put the bleachers up around it [the field] because it [the facility] wasn’t really the size of a stadium,” said Lenarduzzi. “And if you’re worried about crowd access, you would have to be real worried about that one because literally the people that were sitting in the front row could walk onto the field without any real disturbance. ”
The pitch itself featured large, random squares and triangles of differently coloured grass.
“It wasn’t lush green grass,” laughs Lenarduzzi.
After a few days, the Canadian side came to adopt the unusual surroundings as their own. As they walked the streets of St. John’s in their downtime, locals bombarded the outsiders.
“People would recognize us, and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re going to qualify on The Rock!’” said Lenarduzzi. “It was unlike what we would have had in any other city. I think there would have been interest and we probably would have put a good chunk of people in the stadium, but this was almost
theirs. And you just got the feeling they were welcoming this opportunity to be a part of it. ”
The Hondurans were far less enthused, especially given that some of their travelling fans had mistaken St. John’s for Saint John, New Brunswick, and had travelled there instead. And the players themselves were equally lacking in enthusiasm.
“I had to look at a map to see where this place was,” Honduran midfielder Richardson Smith told the Athletic. “And we’re arriving there, and we look down and we see entire patches of these fields covered with ice. They were clearing chunks of ice off the field. It was just shocking, honestly. ”
The local fans, however, treated the event with typical Newfoundland aplomb, cheering the Canadian side as they trained and waiting for them to sign autographs outside their hotel.
“They wanted us to know that they were behind us and that this would be a real treat for them and a real moment in their sporting history,” said Canada midfielder David Norman, who flashed his toothy grin every time he stepped on one of the downtrodden pitches.
Those fans were able to step out of the yellow school buses many had taken to the game and find seats just a few metres away from Canadian forward George Pakos when he smashed home Canada’s first goal of the game after a corner kick produced a scramble in front.
Pakos was an outsider on the team, but the trip to Newfoundland was an opportunity for Waiters to reinforce the point that every one of the players he chose deserved to go to a World Cup.
“Some of his selections, you would scratch your head a little bit,” said Mitchell.
At thirty-three, Pakos would be the second-oldest player on the eventual World Cup roster, a mostly amateur player who made his living as a water meter reader in Victoria. He had landed on Waiters’s radar in the lead-up to the 1984 summer Olympics, before it was announced professionals would be allowed to compete in the tournament.
“[Waiters] saw something in the guy,” said Mitchell. “He went in a different direction. He knew what he wanted and that’s what he made his selections on. ”
None of that mattered in the aftermath of the goal, of course.
Minutes after Pakos scored, the commentator swere hyping up the broadcast that would come after the soccer game: the national ten-pin bowling championships, to determine who would take part in the 1985World Cup of Bowling.
After Honduras levelled, Canada relied on a set piece, as they so often would, to score the most important goal in the country’s soccer history. Striker Igor Vrablic quickly redirected a corner kick past the Honduran goalkeeper, who bore the brunt of the complaining from teammates in the aftermath.
Waiters’s gamble was paying off.
“This is years of preparation, coming to a climax here in St. John’s, Newfoundland,” said CBC play-by-play announcer Steve Armitage on the broadcast, as the final minutes ticked away, and the home crowd began whistling on their own.
With the referee’s whistle securing the 2–1 win for Canada, Waiters ran straight to his team gathering in the centre of the pitch.
The school buses in the parking lot beyond the few thousand fans in attendance were even easier to see once most of those fans stormed the pitch after the final whistle. Those same fans stayed huddled closely around the players as Vrablic was awarded player of the game.
Chants of “Igor, Igor, Igor,” only reinforced the feeling that this game was more akin to a high school football game than a continental championship.
CBC colour commentator Graham Leggat read out the names of the entire squad, most of whom would be on their way to Mexico, in succession.
“Heroes,” said Leggat, “each and every one of them. ”

Reviews

Kloke takes you through all the heartache, and the happiness, that the Canadian soccer fan has lived through just as the entire country begins to understand why the entire world is in love with The Beautiful Game.

An enthralling book exploring the incredible rise of Canada's men's national team. The Voyageurs brings you unrivalled access to the stories behind Canada's journey back to the world's biggest stage. Kloke does a wonderful job highlighting the many ups and downs along the way, with first hand accounts from the personalities involved. A book that isn't just for soccer fans, but for anyone who loves a story of sporting redemption.

Reading Joshua Kloke's thrilling account of Canada's return to the Men's World Cup filled me with the same feeling I had watching our amazing team qualify: finally.

Led by golden boy Alphonso Davies, this generation is special… Kloke not only illuminates the path this golden generation took to the World Cup, but brings you through all the integral moments in the story of Canadian soccer.

There was no better story on the planet in all of World Cup 2022 qualifying than Canada. Joshua Kloke's page-turning account does the best job I've seen of explaining the path of Canada's rise through the people closest to it over the years. You come away from reading this book with even greater respect for those who have made it happen.

Over the past year, the Canadian men’s national team has written one of the most compelling stories in soccer — and one that has been decades in the making. In The Voyageurs, Joshua Kloke pulls the curtain back on the personalities that have shaped the sport, the potential that took so long to realize, and the many false dawns since 1986. This is the authoritative account of how a team that was overlooked in its own country for so long caught the world’s attention.

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