There's not much on the line when Canada take on Australia in a friendly at London’s Craven Cottage on Tuesday (3 pm ET, streamed live on Sportsnet.ca). But for long-suffering Canadian fans, it will bring back memories of the last time the men's national team came closer than it ever has to returning to the World Cup.
In the summer of 1993, deep into the World Cup qualification process, Canada and Australia were set to meet over two legs in the CONCACAF/OFC intercontinental playoff. The winner would be within sniffing distance of USA ’94, while the loser would see their World Cup dreams shelved for another four years.
Canada could have qualified directly for the World Cup in their final game of CONCACAF qualifying in May 1993, but a 2-1 loss to Mexico meant the playoff with Australia would determine the team’s fate.
“We were a little disappointed after the group stage,” former defender Mark Watson recalls to MLSsoccer.com. “[But] we knew we had a good team and if we performed well and had a bit of luck [against Australia], we had a chance.”
Canada had the benefit of a raucous home crowd at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in the first leg on July 31. An early red card to Australian goalkeeper Robert Zabica gave them an added boost, but an own-goal just before halftime gave the advantage to the visitors.
Les Rouges came out flying in the second half, with goals from Watson and striker Domenic Mobilio eight minutes apart giving them a 2-1 lead that would stand until the final whistle.
“I don’t score many,” says Watson, currently the interim head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes. “But I was in the right place at the right time on a corner kick. It was a big moment, it put us back in the game.”
Ahead of the second leg in Sydney two weeks later, the Canadian team was cautiously optimistic, but also aware of the challenges they faced.
“Going back to Australia, we knew it was going to be tough,” says former midfielder Carl Valentine, now a team ambassador with Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “They just bombarded us [in the first half]. How we kept them out, I don’t know.”
Colin Miller is even clearer in his appraisal of the game.
“They pummeled us,” says the former midfielder (pictured at right, on left-hand side), who currently coaches FC Edmonton in the NASL. “They absolutely hammered us in Australia.”
Frank Farina opened the scoring for the Socceroos just before halftime, but a 54th-minute goal from Lyndon Hooper put Canada in a position to advance. Then, with just 14 minutes left in regular time, Mehmet Durakovic chipped the ball over Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest to put the home side up 2-1.
Thirty minutes of extra time solved nothing. One team would be eliminated from World Cup qualifying in the cruelest manner of all: kicks from the penalty mark.
Miller and Valentine were slotted to be Canada’s final two shooters.
“You can imagine how my nerves were,” says Valentine. “I could have been the one to send us through … or the one to lose it.”
But it never came to that. A young Mark Schwarzer denied two of Canada’s first three shooters with excellent saves, while Australia converted their first four penalties. Miller, Valentine and the rest of the Canadian team could do no more – Australia had advanced to a deciding playoff against Argentina, while Canada were eliminated.
“Losing in penalties at any level of football, as you can imagine, is horrendous,” says Miller. “But to be knocked out of the World Cup by penalties was not much fun at all.”
WATCH: Lenarduzzi, Valentine on 'Caps glory in '79
While the Canadian team was left to rue missed opportunities in that qualifying run – still the closest they've come to returning to the World Cup after their lone appearance in 1986 – the players did manage to create a bond that, in many cases, endures to this day.
“You had a team,” says Bob Lenarduzzi, Canada’s head coach at the time. “What we had was a bunch of guys that all recognized that not one of them was more important than the other.”
Lenarduzzi is now president of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, where he continues to work alongside longtime teammate Valentine.
Meanwhile, Watson has worked with two former Canadian teammates at San Jose: Frank Yallop (whom he replaced as head coach) and Nick Dasovic, who he brought on board as an assistant coach.
“When you play with people for as long as we did, you get to know them, and you have absolute trust in every situation,” says Watson.
Most members of that 1993 team remain involved in the game. Three of them – Miller, Yallop and Dale Mitchell – have managed Canada, while Forrest is a long-time play-by-play commentator for the national team.
“They were good professionals,” Lenarduzzi says of the team. “And good pros normally have a good chance of succeeding at another level in the game.”