Today as my son watches a World Cup soccer game in the living room, I want to tell you a little known story about St. John’s role in Canada’s only appearance in the World Cup. Since 1930, the World Cup soccer championships have been held every four years. In that time, Canada has made it to the World Cup once.
And guess where the qualifying game was held?
Here in St. John’s, N.L., on the old grass field at King George V.
Let me set the scene. It was 1985. Tina Turner had just played Memorial Stadium in July and the Pope (JP2) had come in the fall of 1984, so St. John’s had recent experience hosting large events. Alan Ross, technical adviser for the Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association’s host committee, had come to St. John’s to teach at Memorial University and had been assistant coach of Canada’s national World Cup soccer team. He was one of the driving forces in getting the game to Newfoundland.
And what a game it was.
The provincial government had just set up its new tourism number and calls came in from all over from people wanting to book accommodations. That did not help a couple of busloads of Honduran fans who ended up in Saint John, N.B., instead of St. John’s and missed the game altogether.
The odds were stacked in the Canadians’ favour. They had just beat the Hondurans 1-0 in Honduras in August so they were confident they could do it again. All they needed was a tie to make it to the finals, which were held in Mexico the following year. They were now playing on home turf. The Hondurans were used to dry heat and hard playing fields, not rain and damp grass. 7,500 fans decked out in red and white were cheering like maniacs.
“The place was jam packed,” remembers John Breen, a fan and local soccer player who, at 57, still plays masters soccer once or twice a week. “The houses on the Boulevard had scaffolding put up so people could see the game. It was a real party atmosphere with beer and barbecues.”
Despite the Saint John/St. John’s mixup, the Hondurans did manage to get a few hundred fans to the field.
“The Honduran fans were pretty colourful. They had little drums,” says Breen, adding that that World Cup qualifying game still ranks high among his soccer memories. But, of course, not as high as his own accomplishments on the field.
“It doesn’t compare to our own team — Holy Cross — winning the national championships in Saskatoon in 1988 or the Newfoundland Youth Team beating B.C. 5-2 at King George V in 1974.”
John’s brother Bill Breen, who had also played with the Canadian national soccer team, knew three of the players on the Canadian team that day. Ian Bridge, Dale Mitchell and Randy Regan were all from B.C.
They were pretty excited when the final whistle blew and they knew they were going to the World Cup in Mexico, remembers Bill.
“When I went to meet the boys at the hotel after the game to congratulate them, they said: ‘You must have given out flags to the fans.’ I said, ‘No, people bought them.’”
Sharon Reddy grew up in a soccer-mad family. “We had soccer breakfast, dinner and supper,” she says. “We ate it and drank it and slept it.”
The thing she remembers most about the game was the atmosphere.
“Everyone came together,” she says. “King George V with its old grass field was full.”
Sharon’s three brothers, Gerry (Farmer), Bernard (Fox) and Paul (Bunga) were all there, too.
Bernard, who at 63 also plays for the Holy Cross Masters, remembers sitting behind the net in the first or second row. “I remember the crowd,” he says. The Canadians respected the game and weren’t hooligans like fans in some countries who have been known to throw interesting things like bags of pee or roosters onto the playing field.
Jeff Babstock, who was a referee at the time, remembers Sept. 14 being cool and overcast, perfect for the Canadians. Although colder than the seasonal norm, it was not a bad day by Newfoundland standards. The Honduran players like goalie Julio Arzu, may have begged to differ
“Tony Waiters, head coach for the Canadians, wanted that (weather),” says Babstock.
“He wanted more Canadian fans. He got what he wanted. Tons of fan support for Canada. And the result he was hoping for, he got.”
The first goal came 16 minutes in, scored by midfielder George Pacos, a 33-year-old of Polish descent who had taken five unpaid leaves of absence from his job as a water-metre mechanic in Victoria, B.C.
Carl Valentine, an Englishman who had only recently received his Canadian citizenship, assisted on the goal.
Despite the fact the Hondurans tied it up at the beginning of the second half, that first goal set the mood for the game.
“My biggest memory of that game,” says Babstock, “was the ball being brought down to the lake end, river side, for the second goal in our end.”
Well, that goal, scored 61 minutes in by forward Igor Vrablic and assisted once again by Valentine turned out to be the game winner.
All the Canadians had to do was hold on for the final 29 minutes to take their place in Canadian soccer history as the only Canadian team to qualify for the World Cup.
So, why did the Canadians win? Was it because they were the best team in Canadian History?
Was it because the damp playing field favoured them?
Was it because busloads of Hondurans fans ended up in New Brunswick?
Whatever the reason, the players were pretty pleased with themselves. They did a victory lap around the field, sang “O Canada” in the dressing room and then celebrated with liquid refreshments. Some Honduran players came to the dressing room to congratulate them, showing true international sportsmanship.
In 1986, the Canadian team went on to play in front of 65,000 fans at Estadiao Leon in Mexico.
Although they played well, they got shut out of all three World Cup games. But that was
OK. Getting there was the fun part.
Susan Flanagan would like to thank her sister Anne for suggesting this column idea and sending the Youtube link to the game http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIZYT6s9ld4
Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
Patsy Ploughman writes: “Loved your article about d’Iberville … Say what you like, he was quite a guy. I tried to bring him alive for my Grade 6 daughter many moons ago when she was struggling with history. … That’s when I became impressed.
“Also re Chert … we spend summers and falls near Point Amour on the Labrador Straits and have been picking up bits of chert in the sand dunes there … left over by the Maritime Archaics. There is no source of this rock in the area, so it more than likely came from Ramah Bay way up the coast. Apparently Ramah Bay chert has been found as far south as New England.”
Also thought you might like to know that Sudbury is as litter free as you described Paris … Said daughter lives there and I was visiting last week … I saw men taking their own bags to the shops. Not a tree with a plastic bag in it … go figure. So much for the big dirty industrial city image.”
Jeanie Buckley writes: “Your Telegram article (on the Blue Puttees was) very sad — but still very moving. … We always knew why that generation never spoke of the war — the memories were just too painful to bear.”
David Parsons writes: “Thank you for that wonderful article in The Telegram about the Howard family. … I am sure there are many other stories about the boys who went overseas from Newfoundland that need to be told. It is so gratifying that you have given us this story.”
Mary Bown writes: “My husband (Norm) and I thoroughly enjoyed your article about James John Howard … I knew the Buckley family for a lot of years and still see or hear from Esther and Jeanie often. They are great friends of ours. What a beautiful story to put together about their Uncle James John Howard. Mrs. Buckley must be really smiling down on you. I think she would have been very proud of her brother and of you for telling his story.”
Robin Hayward writes: “We were all to Beaumont Hamel in 2009. It is something that stays with you for sure. I know when I came back I had a bit of a different view. My view had evolved from one of mostly pride to a sense of hollowed sadness. Your article touched on that with regards to the enormous loss of life, not just of our own, but the overall number of the Battle of the Somme. More men lost their lives on that July day than in all of the Battle of Normandy. And for a war that was really not truly worthy. Like most men who joined they did so with “not wanting to miss the party” attitude, as opposed to a higher moral issue, which only made their loss all the more hollow.