Sitting on the team bus on the way to represent your country in their first ever FIFA World Cup™ match, you would be forgiven for feeling a little nervous. However, Paul Dolan, aged 20 in 1986, was unperturbed. To increase his confidence, he and his team-mates also thought they had the backing of the locals in Mexico. As they peered out of the window of the coach on its way to Estadio Leon, local fans were swarming around them. On closer inspection, those supporters were holding up their hands, in a slightly cheeky message ahead of Canada’s World Cup opener against France, reigning champions of Europe.

“The Mexican fans, the foreign fans were giving us the numbers of how many goals they thought we would lose by and there were some big numbers, sevens and eights and all the rest of it.”

The youthful Dolan, who was in goal for the biggest football match in his country’s history, would go on to defy those digit-based predictions.

“Going into the game I remember that it wasn’t easy, it was at altitude against one of the World Cup favourites,” Dolan recalled in an exclusive chat with “But I felt calm, because of my team-mates, I took the warm-up in a very professional manner and focused on what I was doing. Walking out, you’re staring at the European champions in this really tight hallway and it was more a feeling of excitement and anticipation than nervousness.”

Giants of world football such as Luis Fernandez, Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Jean-Pierre Papin were crammed up against their Canadian counterparts in the tunnel in Leon, and they were to face a goalkeeper who had certainly not expected to start the historic match a few months previously. However, the more experienced Tino Lettieri was short of match practice due to the disbandment of the North American Soccer League, which led to the regular No1 playing in the Major Indoor Soccer League, in which his Minnesota Strikers side reached the Championship final played in late May, which took Lettieri out of contention for the World Cup warm-up matches.

“I played well enough leading up to the tournament that [coach Tony Waiters] felt comfortable in going with me,” Dolan said.

French ruin fairytale
It was to be so close to a fairy tale for the rookie ‘keeper. For 79 minutes he kept Platini, Fernandez and Co. at bay, putting in an impressive performance between the sticks against the much-fancied French. Alas, it was not to be for Tony Waiters’ side, with future Marseille forward Papin breaking Canucks hearts with the only goal of the game.

“Because we worked for each other, worked so hard off the ball and were a very fit and organised team, we felt we could compete with teams,” Dolan said. “I think losing to France by a narrow margin wasn’t a complete surprise.”

As Lettieri worked his way back to match fitness, and in spite of his excellent performance in the opening game, Dolan found himself on the bench for Canada’s second and third matches. “I never look at that with any regret or resentment,” Dolan said. “I have the ultimate respect for Tony Waiters, I see him often and have never questioned the decision. Of course, I would have loved to have played but I had my chance, I enjoyed it.”

At the age of 20 I thought ‘I could be back here in four years then in eight, 12, 16 – I could play in five World Cups!’

Paul Dolan, former Canada goalkeeper.

The Canucks returned home after the group stage with no goals, and no points, but having impressed on their first – and to date only – World Cup appearance. Dolan credits a youthful, tight-knit group for their positive performances in Mexico.

“I roomed with Randy Samuel, a 21-year-old at the time. He went on to play for PSV Eindhoven and did very well but he too was a fresh face and not a player that many would have known. The younger guys, as normal, would hang out but in general it was a squad that got along very well and I think as much as anything that’s what got us qualified and helped us put in a good World Cup performance.”

Canada calling for World Cup return
Les Rouges have yet to taste the atmosphere of a senior World Cup since those heady days of 1986, meaning Dolan is part of an exclusive club to have represented his nation on the global stage.

“I was young and naive [in 1986] and I think it helped me,” Dolan said. “At the age of 20 I thought ‘I could be back here in four years then in eight, 12, 16 – I could play in five World Cups!’ Of course we never got back.”

Why not?

“We’ve been asked this question a million times,” Dolan smiled. “The NASL was a huge boost to Canadian players being given an opportunity to play day in, day out with excellent professionals. That league folded just before the World Cup and we didn’t really have a league that the players could develop in. It wasn’t really until MLS got up and running in 1996 that again we could get players playing at that level, at least domestically.”

Dolan, himself now a member of the coaching set-up with Canada Soccer, is hoping he can be a part of a brighter future with more regular World Cup appearances. It is unlikely the locals will underestimate the Canucks next time.