You must have heard of it. Playing an obscure match, Canada has been dogged by a match-fixing scandal. What began as a simple conspiracy of big Asian bettors spiraled out of control to include four prominent members of the Canadian men's national team, including its best midfielder and its best striker. In fact...
No, no, get off the phone to Ali Gerba. I'm not talking about the Macedonia - Canada friendly that put the fix in fixture. That appears to just have been some small-time stuff by a standard corrupt FIFA referee. Oh, no, I'm going into the vault of history. I'm talking about the 1986 Merlion Cup.
You've forgotten about it? Yeah, that's not news. It was twenty-three years ago, after all, but it destroyed the Canadian national team. Canada had come off their first qualification to the FIFA World Cup earlier in the year and were favoured to win the tournament in Singapore, which took place against a few minor nations and 'B'-level national teams. Only a narrow 1-0 loss to China August 31 prevented Canada from owning the round robin stage: the goal by Ma Lin was the only time Canada conceded while they scored ten times. The semi-final, however, would be a tense affair, with Canada taking on the North Koreans after mustering only a 0-0 draw in the round robin.
Who knows what the truth is in incidents like this, when all parties are of course looking out for themselves? Some of the players have admitted their guilt to a greater or lesser degree in the decades since, but at the time only one even murmured about taking a bribe: midfielder Paul James, Globe and Mail soccer writer and winner of forty-seven national caps. James said that he was playing cards with four fellow members of the national team when they approached him with the scheme. The five would divide a bribe worth a total of $100,000. In exchange, Canada would throw the semi-final against the North Koreans, which they were favoured to win.
Canada, who had conceded one goal to the Chinese so far in the tournament, lost 2-0. But Paul James was not involved. His conscience had gotten the better of him. James had given his share back to the other four and, more than that, had reported the affair to friend, teammate, and eventually fellow Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer Randy Regan. A nervous Regan, rather than going to his manager or the Canadian Soccer Association, asked Bruce Wilson for advice. Wilson had just retired from international football after fifty-one caps and captaining the 1986 World Cup team and, perhaps because he was out of the dressing room and now had nothing to fear, it was Wilson who finally reported up the chain. He told manager Tony Waiters and soon the Canadian Soccer Association was involved. The scandal was on.
Paul James would soon escape the cloud that lingered over him thanks to his obvious act of integrity. The other four would not be so lucky.
Chris Chueden, a striker, was twenty-five years old and a nobody on the international stage. A former player for the Montreal Manic, Chueden made his debut at the Merlion Cup and made all six of his caps in that tournament, scoring his only national goal against Indonesia. His reviews at the tournament were not terrific but certainly not bad until the North Korea match, where he (and many of the other Canadians). Worse players than Chueden have made careers with Canada, and striker would be a position of weakness for Canada until the years of Paul Peschisolido and Carlo Corazzin.
Burnaby native Hector Marinaro was another Merlion Cup debutante. He had made his first three international appearances in Singapore in 1986, including the North Korean game. A mediocre player, Marinaro roamed North American football for over a decade, playing for enough teams to make Ali Gerba blush.
Dave Norman was the first veteran to be tainted by the scandal. He had debuted for Canada in 1983 at the age of twenty-one and played in the World Cup, scoring his only goal in a 2-1 victory over Ghana in 1985. A hard-nosed defensive midfielder of some repute, Norman was a success domestically as well, being omnipresent for the first incarnation of the Vancouver Whitecaps as well as the later Vancouver 86ers, not to mention a go-round with the legendary Winnipeg Fury in 1987. But he came clean, in time, and was not the greatest casualty of the scandal.
The true loss from all this, the man who Canadian soccer has mourned ever since, ought to have been a white knight, somebody whose name could go down in legend. For he was not only one of the few Canadians to be playing professional outdoor soccer in 1986, he was doing so in the very good Belgian first division. He was Canada's top striker by far. And he had scored the greatest goal in the history of Canadian soccer, getting a knee to a ball off the frozen pitch in St. John's, Newfoundland, one fateful night in September 1985, pushing it past a Honduran goalkeeper, and sending Canada to the World Cup. He scored twelve times for his country and remains to this day the sixth-leading goalscorer in Canadian national history.
His name was Igor Vrablic, and at the time of the Merlion Cup he was twenty years old.
Some of the other players, you could see why. The North American Soccer League had recently collapsed. The Canadian Soccer League had not yet risen to replace it. Canadians had to play for whatever money they could get and in whatever cities would have them. Most of the 1986 World Cup team played indoor soccer, for that was the only way they could get a paycheque. But Vrablic! He was a success in Europe and was bringing in larger paycheques than most of his teammates at a far younger age. The future of Canadian soccer as a sport was hazy, but Vrablic, almost alone on that 1986 team, could look forward to his future.
He was a patriot, too. Born abroad to Slovak immigrants, he was eligible for Czechoslovakia and they certainly would have had him, but he chose Canada. He had played his heart out for his country in a day when love was the only reason to do so; when there was no motivation for flying across an ocean to stamp on a frozen pitch and try to send your homeland to the World Cup except the sheer joy of doing so. But for a share of $100,000, he threw it all away.
Twenty-one years old. Smarter people have done stupider things at that age, but not many. It ended his Canadian career in a heartbeat. The European leagues, then sensitive to match-fixing rumours after the Italian Totonero scandals earlier in the decade, wouldn't have pissed on Vrablic if he was on fire. Unable to catch on in Europe, he eventually returned to Canada where, at last report, he works in Ontario keeping a low profile and avoiding soccer.
So excuse me if I don't get excited about a referee rigging a meaningless friendly. Because this is match fixing.