Wales vs Concacaf (part 1)
Canadian tour, 1929 – Wales had yet to face a country other than England, Scotland and Ireland when they accepted an invitation to spend a month in Canada at the end of the 1928-29 season. Despite going into the season as reigning British champions, they lost to England and eventual champions Scotland and drew at home to Ireland. Wales wouldn’t win another Championship game for two more years.
The domestic season for Wales’s representatives in the English league was little better. Cardiff City were relegated from the top flight, Swansea Town narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier and Merthyr Town and Newport County were in the lower reaches of the third division (south). It was only Wrexham who enjoyed any sort of success that season finishing third in the third tier’s northern edition.
Football had established itself as a popular sport in Canada with the first associations outside the British Isles set up in Ontario in 1877 and 1880. Since the fixture’s first occurrence in 1885, Canada regularly played the United States, and representative teams from the dominion had toured the British Isles in the early 1900s. The Scottish (1921, 1927) and English (1926) FAs had accepted invitations to Canada in preceding years, and there was a strong loyalty between Candian football administrators – many of whom, like most of players in Canada, were of British origin or second-generation Britons – and those in Britain to such an extent that the Canadan FA followed the Home Nations’ example in 1928 and left FIFA over a dispute regarding broken time payments to amateur players.
A Canadian Football League was set up in 1926 and these tours were seen as an important way of raising the profile of, and interest in, football among the Canadian-born population.
The tour initially comprised 15 matches, with a 16th added intra-tour comprising two mixed Welsh and Canadian teams. Games came thick and fast every 2-3 days starting in the east in Montreal against a Montreal & District XI and meandered all the way west to Vancouver and Victoria, and then back eastwards ending with a second fixture against Montreal & District. Despite the gruelling itinerary – they travelled over 13,000 miles in total – Wales won each game, including large winning margins of 10-1, 8-0, 7-2 and 7-0, and scored 61 goals in total, conceding only 10.
Plymouth’s Merthyr-born Moses Russell featured in every game (although he was assaulted by a spectator in the penultimate tour match versus Hamilton & District), Fred Keenor in 15 and the other 18 players figuring to varying degrees. All of the squad were drawn from the Football League except Len Evans, the reserve goalkeeper who was playing for Barry Town in the Southern League. Cardiff’s Len Davies top scored on tour with 17 goals in 8 appearances (including seven against British Columbia Lower Mainland, and five against Manitoba), with his clubmate Fred Warren and Wrexham’s Johnny Neal each scoring 11 goals in 11 appearances.
Although none of the games were capped and some of the opposition extremely weak, several of the representative teams Wales faced comprised players capped by Canada. Wales shirts bore numbers for the first time
It would be another 33 years before a Wales team set foot on North American soil and 57 before returning to Canada. Bert Gray’s tour medal is featured in the People’s Collection of Wales.
Wales 1-1 Mexico, 1958 – before Wales returned to North America, however, they officially faced Concacaf opposition for the first time in suburban Stockholm when they played Mexico in the second fixture of the 1958 World Cup first round.
Wales had drawn with Hungary in the opening fixture while Mexico had lost to the hosts 0-3. Ivor Allchurch scored his 11th international goal to give Wales the lead which they held until the 89th minute when Belmonte stole across Mel Hopkins to head home a cross from the left. Mexico deserved a point in a poor Welsh performance.
Mexico 2-1 Wales, 1962 – Wales played Brazil twice and Mexico once as part of an end of season tour that also served as warm ups for both countries who were about to compete in the 1962 World Cup in Chile where they had been drawn in the same group (their clash was notable for this Pele goal).
Wales lost twice in Brazil, in the second game of which Jack Kelsey won his final cap when he was injured and replaced by debutant Dave Hollins (brother of John who played for England). Hollins started against Mexico along with five of the starting XI who faced Mexico four years earlier in Sweden: Hopkins, Allchurch, Stuart Williams, Cliff Jones, John Charles.
Again Wales were poor as they struggled at altitude and in the heat after a long season. John Charles scored what would be his penultimate international goal in the defeat while Cliff Jones was sent off, the first ever red card received by a Welsh player.
Canada 2-0 Wales, 1986 – Canada’s first attempt at qualification for a World Cup was the 1958 edition where they were beaten by Wales’s eventual group opponents Mexico, Concacaf’s traditional powerhouses and sole representatives at World Cups between 1954 and 1966. As hosts Mexico qualified by right for 1970 so for the first time post-war Concacaf had a second qualifier (El Salvador) before reverting to a single representative at the 1974 and 1978 tournaments (Haiti and Mexico respectively). An expanded tournament in 1982 saw a second spot awarded to Concacaf, to be claimed by the winners and runners-up in the 1981 CONCACAF Championship. Both Canada and Mexico went into their final fixtures (away to Cuba and Honduras respectively) each needing a win to qualify for Spain. Both could only draw, leaving Honduras and, against all the odds, a civil war-ravaged El Salvador as Concacaf’s representatives, where Honduras performed admirably drawing against the hosts and Northern Ireland and conceding an 88th minute penalty to lose to Yugoslavia. El Salvador on the other hand couldn’t even afford to attend the tournament with a full squad and lost each group game, including a record for the finals losing 10-1 to Hungary.
Mexico returned to the finals in 1986 as hosts, stepping into the breach only three years before when Colombia decided it was unable to host the tournament as planned – the first country to host the tournament a second time. This offered Concacaf a second spot that Canada claimed for the first, and thus far only, time.
With Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto Blizzard competing in the North American Soccer League, Canadian players had not only exposure to professional football but to superstar talent such as Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, George Best and Johann Neeskens who were among a raft of international talent attracted to NASL clubs.The national team under the guidance of Englishman Tony Waiters had slowly become a resilient but dour side. Having reached the quarter finals of the 1984 Olympics where they lost on penalties to Brazil, there was quiet confidence that Canada could snaffle the extra berth available to Concacaf nations.
Having topped a first round group comprising Guatemala and Haiti, Canada faced Costa Rica and Honduras in the final group. A home draw to Costa Rica in which Cardiff-born Paul James scored the equaliser put Canada on the back foot in the group, but a 2-1 win at home to Honduras in St John’s, Newfoundland – Canada’s easternmost city – saw the Maple Leafs through to Mexico.
By this timer the NASL was folding, leaving many of the Canadian players heading to Mexico 86 without a club or employment. According to Waiters:
“Most of the players had no team. So what we did was we formed more or less a team-in-being. And we’d go pretty well anywhere that would pay for us to come in and pay us when we got there. So we had a tour of North Africa. We went into Asia as well. Any opportunity to get a game where there’d be money coming in so we could turn some of that money around into players’ pockets.”
Wales and England accepted an offer to visit Canada the month before the tournament started. England were heading to Mexico, whereas Wales had, once again, fell at the final qualification hurdle. On an awful pitch in Toronto Mike England fielded an experimental side. Joey Jones captained the side on the occasion of his record 71st cap and Peter Nicholas and Robbie James provided further experience. Elsewhere Tony Norman played the first half in goal and was replaced at half time by Andy Dibble winning his first cap, Mark Bowen came on as a sub for his first cap, while Dean Saunders, Mark Aizlewood and Malcolm Allen won only their second caps. The well-drilled Canadians won 2-0 before a second clash in Vancouver a week later.
In his autobiography, Oh Joey, Joey!, Jones recalls going out for a couple of pints with room-mate Robbie James and ended up being cordoned off in the bar while a police series was filmed outside.
Canada 0-3 Wales, 1986 – after the Toronto clash, Wales flew to Vancouver for the second match. Due to the 1986 all-Merseyside FA Cup Final Wales were without Ian Rush, Kevin Ratcliffe, Neville Southall and Pat Van Den Hauwe which upset the Canadian FA who were hoping for big names to put bums on seats. There was also criticism about how poor Wales had been and weren’t good enough opposition for Canada ahead of their World Cup debut.
Nine of the starting XI the week before made amends on astroturf at a cavernous indoor arena. Dean Saunders opened his Wales account with a brace and Malcolm Allen also scored his maiden Wales goal. It proved to be Joey’s final cap.
Canada performed creditably in Mexico but failed to score. They did however have the best shirt font in the tournament. Paul James, who played in each of Canada’s group games, and is one of only two Welsh-born players to appear in a World Cup since 1958 (Kevin Sheedy the other). With a new domestic league in the pipeline, a debut World Cup appearance ought to have been the foundations on which to grow the game in Canada. Instead, former Whitchurch High School pupil James was the key figure in the 1986 Merlion Cup match-fixing scandal that rocked Canadian football.
Approached by a betting syndicate in Singapore, the tournament hosts, James was one of five players to agree to share £100k to throw the semi final against North Korea. Midfielder James played out of position at out right back in a 2-0 defeat, but got cold feet and returned the money to the other conspirators and confessed to teammate Randy Regan. It was eventually escalated to the Canadian FA when all hell broke loose; the affair still casts a shadow over the game in Canada.
James eventually played for Canada again, but his four cronies were all immediately banned, including Canada’s star-striker Igor Vrablic, one of the goalscorers in the Toronto match versus Wales.
Wales 1-0 Costa Rica, 1990 – with another World Cup around the corner another tournament debutant saw Wales as ideal preparatory opposition. On 20 May, Los Ticos visited Ninian Park for a ‘taste of British opposition’ with them due to face Scotland at Italia 90.
Wales opted to wear their yellow hummel change shirt to avoid clashing with the red of the Costa Ricans. Eric Young and Paul Bodin won their first caps, as did Gary Speed from the bench late on as a substitute for Glyn Hodges, having played for the u21s at Merthyr less than 24 hours earlier. Peter Nicholas won his 65th cap; at that time only Brian Flynn (66), Ivor Allchurch (68) and Joey Jones (72) had won more. Dean Saunders scored a tenth minute winner in front of just over 5,000 people.
In keeping with the tradition of Scottish pre-World Cup hubris The Scotsman’s reporter covering the match claimed ‘Warning: Costa Rica Beatable’.
Three weeks later Juan Cayasso had other ideas….