Monday, June 21, 2010

The unlikely tale of a World Cup hero

George Pakos took unpaid leaves of absence from his job with the City of Victoria to take part in World Cup qualifying 25 years ago. Canadian soccer fans should be glad he did. Geoff Howe photograph for The Globe and Mail. BELOW: Pakos (right) in action on the pitch.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 21, 2010


Most weekends, George Pakos can be found on the soccer pitch, a whistle in his mouth, a referee’s shirt on his back.

He officiates girls’ matches, high school matches, men’s over-50 matches. If he’s needed to deliver judgment on fouls, he’ll take to the pitch, no matter the players, or the weather. He loves the game that much.

Few of the kids and only some of the adults are aware of his footy pedigree.

His story is so unlikely, so incredible, it seems more fiction than fact.

Mr. Pakos, 57, is retired from his job with the City if Victoria, in whose employ he laboured since high school.

These days, he arises before 7 a.m. each morning to catch a World Cup match on television.

He once watched sport’s great spectacle from a better seat than a basement couch.

He began playing soccer at age 10 with other neighbourhood boys in the Gorge Soccer Association.

“I took a love to it right away,” he said. “Anybody can play the game. That’s why they call it the People’s Game.”

His father, Zenon Pakos, played professional soccer in Poland before the outbreak of the Second World War. He survived the war as a displaced person. He found work as a boilermaker at the Yarrow Shipyards in Victoria, saving enough to send for his wife, Eva, and their son. Their second son, George, was born in the new land, a symbol for the family of a promising future away from the ancient animosities of the old continent.

The patriarch spent 38 years in the shipyards. His son, too, was going to be a dedicated worker, though he indulged a young man’s desire to see the world. He travelled through Europe in 1974, taking in a World Cup match in Munich. He figured it would be the closest he’d ever get to soccer’s championship.

Back home, his workdays were busy in the city’s work yard. The weekends, then as now, were dedicated to soccer.

He was playing midfield for a local amateur team in a muddy exhibition game when spotted by Bob Bearpark, an assistant coach with the national team. He invited the stocky player to a tryout.

Mr. Pakos was a tad old at 29 1/2 to have been discovered, but in those days the national team would take prospects wherever they could find them.

He made the team, only to be cut before the 1984 Olympics.

He vowed to make the squad trying to qualify for the World Cup.

Those tryouts were held during a week-long camp at the naval base at Esquimalt. Forty players took to the pitch for a chance to wear the red-and-white uniform of Canada.

The coaches could name 22 players.

Mr. Pakos heard 21 names. On the final selection, he heard his own.

Then, he was cut again. That’s what happens when you’re on the bubble. One day in, next day out.

“I was so mad,” he remembers. “I said, ‘If they call me back, I’ll never go.’ ”

He was playing midfield for the Victoria Riptides in a game in California when his wife reached him with an urgent message. There had been an injury. He was to report to the national squad immediately.

He flew home to Victoria, caught a red-eye flight to Toronto, where he rejoined the team, which was flying south to Tegucigalpa for the first of a home-and-away World Cup qualifying series against Honduras.

The poor Central American country took the sport seriously. After all, it had engaged neighbouring El Salvador in a dispute remembered as the Soccer War.

“You get protection,” Mr. Pakos said. “Police guards at the airport, army in front of the hotel, armed with machine-guns. Very safety conscious. Nerve-racking for us.”

The stadium was packed with 55,000 frenzied fans. Mr. Pakos sat on the bench. After 30 minutes, a Canadian was hacked down by a Honduran defender. Mr. Pakos was sent in as a striker.

Early in the second half, he broke free from coverage, received a pass from a teammate and drilled a shot from outside the penalty area into the far corner of the net as the goalie sprawled helplessly to his right.

The Pakos goal settled the match, which ended 1-0.

The return engagement was held at St. John’s, Nfld. The September weather was chill enough that the visitors wore gloves and toques. Mr. Pakos opened the scoring when he pounced on a deflection, banging home the ball. At the final whistle, Canada, winning 2-1, had qualified for its first appearance on the World Cup stage.

The emergency fill-in was serenaded by teammates who sang a version of Guantanamero with altered lyrics — “One Georgie Pakos! There’s only one Georgie Pakos! One Geogie PAY-kos!”

Only 24 teams qualified for the final tournament in Mexico in 1986, eight fewer than today.

He watched Canada’s first two matches from the bench.

The third game was against the Soviet Union. With 21 minutes left, coach Tony Waiters at last let the moonlighting water-meter technician take to the pitch. He did not score — Canada was shut out for the third consecutive match — but took a measure of revenge for what his opponent had done to his ancestral homeland.

“I remember chasing (Igor) Belanov, trying to stick him with a Canadian elbow. I think I got him, too.”

He later learned relatives in Warsaw watched the match on a rented colour television.

At the advanced age of 33, he had played in a World Cup, a blue-collar amateur who took an unpaid leave-of-absence from his city job to take on the best soccer players in the world. His international career ended with the satisfaction of knowing his two goals helped put Canada in the final tournament.

He returned home and to an ordinary anonymity broken when his stepdaughter, Kelly Ellard, was charged and convicted in the beating death of schoolmate Reena Virk.

At his home, Mr. Pakos has as souvenirs the tricolour captain’s armband of Michel Platini, as well as the shirt of Bernard Genghini, who like Mr. Pakos, wore No. 13.

In Canada, because Mr. Pakos’ athlete feats were performed on grass and not on ice, he is hardly celebrated. In any other country, he’d be a hero.

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