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Canadian glory and scandal; Igor Vrablic's goal


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In the shadow of World Cup, Canadian glory and scandal; Igor Vrablic's goal earned Canada a place in the 1986 Cup, but his troubled career ended too soon, then he disappeared



1307 words

26 June 2006

Kitchener-Waterloo Record




Copyright © 2006 Kitchener-Waterloo Record.


He scored the biggest goal in Canadian soccer history but now lives in relative obscurity in Waterloo.

Igor Vrablic was a can't-miss prospect who captured the hearts of Canadians when his marker lifted Canada to its first and only berth in the World Cup of Soccer in 1986.

But his career was derailed soon after when he was accused of allegedly taking money to throw soccer games.

And while this year's World Cup in Germany has fans celebrating around the globe, one of Canada's most important players has virtually faded from the soccer scene.

"He was one of the local players that made good," said Kitchener resident Colin Linford, who is also the president of the Canadian Soccer Association. "We haven't had too many."

It has been 20 years since the bribery scandal broke. But the allegations continue to dog Vrablic to this day. So much so, that when reached at his Waterloo home by The Record, the 40-year-old politely refused to comment.

But life wasn't always so private for Vrablic.

The Czechoslovakian-born striker came to Canada with parents John and Olga at the age of three. While other kids concentrated on hockey, John had his boys, Igor and younger brother John Jr., kicking soccer balls year-round. The keen lads even practised during the winter in the snow.

The training paid off and Vrablic, who graduated from Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate, made headlines when the Toronto Blizzard selected him 13th overall in the North American Soccer League draft in 1982. The 17-year-old never reached a deal with the Blizzard but kept in shape by playing for Beograd, a men's team in the Kitchener and District Soccer League.

About a year later, he signed with the North American Soccer League's Golden Bay Earthquakes in San Jose as a free agent.

"I knew right away that this guy should be going somewhere," recalls Kitchener and District Soccer League president Tony Kocis, who refereed some of Vrablic's games in the early 1980s. "You could tell that he was great. When he had the ball, he knew what to do with it."

Vrablic's scoring prowess caught the attention of the Canadian Soccer Association and he was selected to compete with the national team at the 1984 Olympics.

But the best was yet to come.

In late 1985, Canada was one victory away from gaining a berth in the World Cup of soccer set for Mexico the following year. The Canucks needed to beat a favoured Honduras squad in a sudden-death qualifying match in order to move on.

The game was tied 1-1 when Vrablic used his knee to score the winning goal off a corner kick in the 61st minute of play. When the match ended, the boisterous crowd in St. John's, N.L., poured onto the field to celebrate.

Newspapers called it Canada's proudest soccer moment.

"The goal that Igor scored was absolutely key," said Tony Waiters, who coached the national team from 1982 to 1986. "The Hondurans were getting themselves back into the game. We were under some real pressure. Had they scored again, I don't think we'd have got that one back. When we scored to make it 2-1, it took the wind out of their sails pretty quickly.

"I think for everyone it was just an incredible feeling. To get to the World Cup finals was amazing. I think everyone felt the same way. It was a dream that we didn't really think would come true."

Canada didn't fare so well in Mexico. The team failed to score but only allowed five goals over three games against France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Vrablic's profile increased after the tournament and he landed a deal with Olympiakos, a First Division team in Greece. But just when everything seemed to be golden, his world fell apart.

In November 1987, Vrablic and Canadian national team members David Norman, Hector Marinaro and Christopher Chueden were charged with accepting bribes to affect the outcome of an exhibition tournament in Singapore. Vrablic, Norman and Marinaro were also charged with bringing into Canada money obtained while committing a criminal offence outside the country.

The charges stemmed from a 10-month RCMP investigation centred around Singapore's Merlion Cup. Canada was favoured to win the 1986 tournament, which was played after the World Cup, but the team failed to qualify for the final. It was alleged that the four Canadian players took bribes totalling about $100,000 to affect the outcomes of games.

"I was amazed," said Waiters, who now runs World of Soccer, a Vancouver-based company that produces coaching manuals for community soccer groups. "I'm going, 'Why would people do that?' "

Two bookmakers in Singapore were later arrested on charges of attempted bribery to fix the Merlion Cup and imprisoned for two years. But the charges against the four Canadian players were thrown out of court at a preliminary hearing in Ottawa. Provincial court judge Patrick White said Canadian courts had no jurisdiction since the alleged bribes took place outside the country.

Despite the ruling, Vrablic was forever tainted by the scandal.

It didn't help when former national teammate Paul James went on the CBC's Fifth Estate in 1989 and confirmed the story. James said he, too, took bribe money but returned it and alerted Canadian captain Bruce Wilson about the incident after guilt set in.

The four players who were charged were later suspended by the Canadian Soccer Association for "bringing the game into disrepute." Norman was reinstated in 1992 after admitting his involvement in Singapore.

Vrablic never played for Canada, or any big European club, again.

"It killed his career," Kocis said.

Linford said: "Ontario and Canadian soccer have a Hall of Fame in Toronto and I think he's the only one who probably hasn't been inducted. One of the reasons would be the bribery scandal. The other part would be that no one seems to know where the hell he went. He just disappeared off the face of the earth."

Vrablic has indeed maintained a low profile for close to two decades. Word is that he lived and worked in Toronto for awhile but he is now back living in Waterloo.

It's clear that some people would like to see Canada's most famous goal scorer return to the pitch in some form.

"He paid his dues, he paid his price," Kocis said. "He should be over that. He should just go straight forward. If he can help anybody in coaching or just being involved at a club level, show them a few tricks at training camp and stuff like that, I think it would be awesome."

Waiters hasn't seen or spoken to Vrablic since the 1986 World Cup finals.

"We all make choices in life and we all make mistakes in life. The thing in life is to overcome it.

"It would be good if he got back into the local community and starting helping the kids and moved up from there. He had a unique experience in the sense that he scored the goal that clinched our place in the World Cup. Not many people get that opportunity and have that experience. He has a lot to pass on."



Colour Photo: CANADIAN PRESS / Waterloo's Igor Vrablic, shown in 1986 at Toronto's Varsity Stadium, gained fame when he scored a crucial goal, winning Canada a berth in the World Cup. Colour Photo

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Nice article, in the sense that it's a piece of Canadian soccer history being revived, though a sad one. I seem to recall Marinaro making a go of it in indoor soccer. I wonder why Vrablic didn't? Maybe he just wanted to leave it all behind after the scandal. On another note, I recall the CSA being rather cheap with the players leading up to the tournament. Late night bargaining sessions before matches and the like. I guess some of these guys were really hurting when the shadowy figures with large billfolds showed up. A shame, considering, at least in Vrablic's case, bigger things seemed to be just around the corner.

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I seem to recall Marinaro making a go of it in indoor soccer.

Either that's tongue in cheek, or it's one of the biggest understatements I've seen. Marinaro is indoor soccer's all-time scoring leader. He won the MVP award so many times, they named the trophy after him.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but I seem to recall that Vrablic played in the CSL for half a season or so for one of the Ontario teams.

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quote:Originally posted by AlanDouglas

I seem to recall Marinaro making a go of it in indoor soccer.

Either that's tongue in cheek, or it's one of the biggest understatements I've seen. Marinaro is indoor soccer's all-time scoring leader. He won the MVP award so many times, they named the trophy after him.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but I seem to recall that Vrablic played in the CSL for half a season or so for one of the Ontario teams.

Quite right Alan. He was with the Blizzard but had limited success. Later, he played in the NSL. He may have been with Panhellenic but of that I'm not sure although I do recall hearing that he had broken his leg while in that league. After that, he disappeared.


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For the record, the article errs by saying that Canada needed to beat Honduras in that match to qualify - a tie would have seen us go through. Not to diminish Igor's efforts but his goal was really the insurance marker - George Pakos' first half goal to give us the lead was the more important one IMO.

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