Do you remember the year 1999? There was that Y2K bug thing, I remember that. We all had mullets and wore jean jackets and called each other "Zap", but that may have just been in Alberta. And that summer, a plucky bunch of youngsters led by tykes like Richard Hastings and Paul Stalteri were gearing up for something called the "Gold Cup".
Well, they were gearing up for something called qualifying for the Gold Cup, for those were the dark days when Canada was expected to join the likes of Haiti and Cuba in the ritual of earning the right to play for our continental championship. Among those kids was a long-forgotten Poznań-born immigrant named Thomas Radsunski or something. Once the second-best striker for the North York Astros, that 26-year-old had somehow caught on with Anderlecht in Belgium and was piling up goals like they were missed CSL paycheques. Canada's then-undisputed national soccer kaiser, Holger Osieck, had called upon Rudnuzsky or whatever his name was to join Paul Peschisolido and Carlo Corazzin as the best strike force Canada had seen since Bunbury and Mitchell.
Rasputzki accepted Osieck's callup and then the day came and he was laying in bed in Anderlecht and the young man came to a fateful decision which could be summed up as follows: fuck this shit. Rather than head to the goddamned airport and fly across a goddamned ocean to play El Goddamned Salvador, he decided that he'd keep on kicking it in Belgium. He didn't, however, think to inform anyone at the Canadian Soccer Association of this, which meant that some poor wino dragooned into being a chauffeur probably had to stand at an airport for six hours holding a piece of cardboard with "TOMMY RADNESKY" written on it. It also pissed off Holger Osieck something awful, and if there's one thing living in Belgium should have taught young Tomas, it was never piss off the Germans.
Well, that was it for that young striker, whatever his name was. Osieck absolutely went spare. When Canada eventually qualified for the Gold Cup, Osieck did not invite him to join the full team. When Canada eventually won the Gold Cup, its first title of any kind since 1986, Osieck had the last laugh. Holger's Heroes were as much national icons as any Canadian soccer team had been since 1986. Craig Forrest was a celebrity. Richard Hastings, he of the winning goal that put Mexico (fucking Mexico!) out of the tournament in what was very nearly their home ground of San Diego, had won himself a place in football Valhalla. That Polish immigrant who could, well, his international career was over. The Canadian team was more successful than ever even without that particular prima donna. Sure enough, Tomasz Radzinski never played in the Gold Cup again.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Holger Osieck never quite forgave Radzinski, but the sheer paucity of depth for Canada in the first half of the decade meant that he eventually picked up the phone again. Radzinski returned in 2001 for a friendly in Malta because who the hell wants to play a friendly in Malta? Six months later, Osieck again summoned Radzinski, this time to Switzerland, where he potted a brace just because he could. They were his first goals for his country in six years.
He kept showing up. He skipped the Gold Cups - perhaps El Goddamned Salvador still weighed on his mind - but throw a European friendly or World Cup qualifying match and he was there. From 2002 to 2008, Radzinski scored at least one goal for his country every year except 2005, when a 32-year-old Radzinski, seemingly long past his best-before date, played only two friendlies and against Spain and Portugal.
The glory dimmed for Radzinski. He went from Everton, where he scored in quantity, to Fulham, where he didn't. His next stop was in Greece, where aging strikers go to die, and though he produced once more he left after accusing his teammates of match fixing. Now he toils in the Belgian second division, and is possibly the best striker there.
But, as his club career dimmed, internationally the hits kept on coming. Frank Yallop hated Radzinski like he hated all his players with flair and personality; a then-Premier League star was thrown out onto the wing and told to try and get Kevin McKenna the ball so the fucking centreback could head it somewhere like where the net was. It was Dale Mitchell, of all people, who finally clued in that maybe his natural goalscorer should be in a position to score some goals. In 2008 World Cup qualifying, Radzinski seemed (not for the first time) like a man reborn. He tore up and down the wing like he was belatedly calling upon all the talent we Canada fans were robbed of in 2000. In Edmonton, we were witness to the best individual performance by any Canadian player since Craig Forrest hung up the spikes. Radzinski roared against the best midfield and defense in CONCACAF. His goal was a sublime bit of finishing, his balls into the box were deadly. Father Time had that game off, for it was Canada's old men who came to play: who will forget Paul Stalteri blasting up the right wing and thundering a ball from forty feet that we belatedly realized had been really well-struck, ricocheting off the crossbar as the crowd went from resignation to near-orgasm in the flash of a second.
But it was Radzinski. Radzinski. Always Radzinski. When he ran to the corner of Commonwealth Stadium to celebrate a 2-2 draw with the Voyageurs, he was showered with love. And gifts. A plaque commissioned by Victoria Voyageur Geoff Wallace, honouring his commitment to the national team. A Voyageurs scarf, which was hard to come by at the time. It wasn't the most graceful award presentation of all time since the plaque was very nearly thrown at him (it was that sort of celebration), but he got it anyway. Then somebody tossed him a black "Sack the CSA" shirt. Radzinski held up the shirt for an instant and looked at it thoughtfully. He took his jersey off and threw it into the crowd (it eventually got to the Voyageur who purchased the plaque). He put the "Sack the CSA" shirt on. The crowd erupted. The Voyageurs thundered to the rail. I was already there and found myself being jostled on all sides by those eager to salute the old hero. Through the chaos, I managed to snap a picture of Radzinski putting the shirt on, another of him walking away, and a lot of pictures of people's elbows.
It was official. Radzinski was forgiven for his sin of nearly a decade ago. The prodigal son had been sent off into the sunset with a fanfare fit for kings.
Yet, you know what? For all the plaques and salutes and the glorious exits, Tomasz Radzinski never actually came out and said he was done. On the contrary, he kept plugging along. Scoring goals. Telling a Voyageur interviewing him that "I have been approached by the CSA to see where my future lies with the national team but right now I really don’t know." Not coming to the Gold Cup but that's hardly news. When Poland was announced as Canada's second November friendly, Voyageurs like me started clamouring for Radzinski to get the call to Poland, the country in which he had been born but never played a professional game. Then he did, to the extent that Stephen Hart actually allowed Radzinski to miss the Macedonia match to ensure his presence in Poland.
Here we are again. Another would-be sending off. Another chance for Radzinski to possibly ride off into the sunset. Jonathan de Guzman and Dani Fernandes should take note: time and loyalty, however belated, truly does heal all wounds. Yet has Radzinski said he's done? Not within my earshot. He is dominating the Belgium second division, and playing at a higher level than any of our strikers aside from Rob Friend and Simeon Jackson. It's easy to say that he'll be forty years old by the 2014 World Cup, but Radzinski has never given a damn about Father Time's opinion before so why should he start now?
Is this actually a Canada - Poland preview? Not really. Poland's sending a young team and if we play our best we should beat them. But it is an axiom that in friendlies it is not the result that matters but the effort. And if we're talking effort, it is only fitting that we talk Radzinski.