15 countries entered the qualifying competition and were split into three groups based on geographical regions.
NORTH AMERICAN ZONE: 3 teams who played against each other home and away. The first and second teams progress to the next round.
CENTRAL AMERICAN ZONE: 5 teams who played against each other home and away. The first and second teams progress to the next round.
CARIBBEAN ZONE: 7 teams divided into 2 groups. Group A had 4 teams and Group B had 3 teams. 2 teams in Group A played in the Preliminary Round against each other home and away with the winner going through to Group A. The 3 teams in each group then play against each other on a home and away basis, with the group winners going through to the next round.
The final round is then a league system for the 6 qualifiers who play each other once with the top two in the table qualifying for the finals in Spain. All matches were played at Tegucigalpa in Honduras in November 1981.
NORTH AMERICAN ZONE
Canada, Mexico, USA
Three of the strongest nations in CONCACAF competed in the same group to eliminate just one of them. Firstly, Canada and Mexico drew 1-1 in Toronto on their astroturf pitch. Stojanovic put the home side in front but Luna equalised for Mexico.
A week later in Fort Lauderdale USA and Canada played out a 0-0 draw. It was clear a side losing a match would make their chances of progressing really difficult. At the beginning of November 1980, Canada then beat USA, 2-1 to give them 4pts and be in a great position to qualify for the next round. USA’s hopes of qualifying were then ruined completely when they travelled to Azteca Stadium in Mexico and were beaten 1-5. This was a great win for Mexico and they then drew again with Canada to make it impossible for USA to go through. USA finally got a win when they beat Mexico, 2-1 but it was too late.
QUALIFIERS: Canada, Mexico
CENTRAL AMERICAN ZONE
Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama
El Salvador was the only country from this group to have qualified for the finals when they appeared in Mexico in 1970. Panama began by playing all their home matches between July and August 1980. They failed to win any of them. Guatemala won 2-0 and so did Honduras, with goals from Salvador Bernardez and Anthony Costly. Costa Rica drew 1-1 and then El Salvador won 3-1.
In October 1980, Honduras then won in Costa Rica, 3-2 before El Salvador then beat Panama, 4-1. It was clear Honduras and El Salvador were going to be the two best teams in this group, although Guatemala were battling. They had two 0-0 draws against Costa Rica and Honduras. They were then able to hold El Salvador to a goalless draw. The first meeting between El Salvador and Honduras came in November 1980 in San Salvador. El Salvador won 2-1 to put them in the driving seat. A week later in the return fixture, Honduras got their own back when they won 2-0 in Tegucigalpa. These were the only defeats either country suffered as Honduras won the group with El Salvador 2nd.
QUALIFIERS: Honduras, El Salvador
Guyana and Grenada played out a Preliminary Round over 2-legs. Guyana won both matches, 5-2 & 3-2 to go through 8-4 on aggregate.
Cuba, Guyana, Surinam
Cuba was the fancied team in this group and outlined their superiority by beating Surinam, 3-0 in Havana and then drawing 0-0 in the away fixture. Surinam then beat Guyana in both their meetings but if Cuba could pick up at least 3pts from their two matches against Guyana, they would be through. A 1-0 win in Havana secured Cuba’s progression and they confirmed things when they then won 3-0 in Guyana.
Haiti, Netherlands Antilles, Trinidad and Tobago
Haiti qualified for the finals in 1974, yet was a much changed team by now. They began in August 1980 by beating Trinidad 2-0 in Port-au-Prince. A fortnight later, Trinidad got their own back by beating Haiti, 1-0 in San Fernando. Haiti then bounced back with a 1-0 win over Netherlands Antilles at home. Trinidad and Netherlands Antilles played out two 0-0 draws, to leave Trinidad and Haiti level on 4pts with the Antilles on 2pts. The last match of the group was the Antilles at home to Haiti. The game ended 1-1 which was all Haiti required to progress to the next round.
Canada, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico
In this group were the last three representatives in World Cups from this region, El Salvador (1970), Haiti (1974) and Mexico (1970 & 1978). All the games were played at Tegucigalpa in Honduras during November 1981.
Mexican legend, Hugo Sanchez scored two goals to help his side beat Cuba, 4-0. The next day, Canada pulled off a shock when they beat El Salvador, 1-0 thanks to a 90th minute goal from Stojanovic. Honduras first outing saw them easily beat Haiti, 4-0. Canada then lost their early advantage when they were held 1-1 by Haiti, with Stojanovic again scoring. The big meeting between Mexico and El Salvador ended in a 1-0 win for El Salvador with Hernandez scoring the only goal in the last 10 minutes. Two days later Honduras went to the top of the group as they beat Cuba, 2-0 with goals from David Buezo and Anthony Costly.
El Salvador then were surprisingly held 0-0 by Cuba. Mexico were then almost beaten by Haiti but Hugo Sanchez saved their skin 3 minutes from time. Honduras then continued their 100% record when they beat Canada, 2-1, with Caballero and Figueroa scoring. With just two games to go, Honduras were going to be difficult to shift from top spot but all the other countries were still very much in the hunt.
Cuba, who’d yet to score in their 3 matches, finally got a goal, although it came courtesy of an own goal from Haitian defender, Frantz Mathieu. Nunez then added a 2nd and Cuba had their first win. Mexico then continued their frustrating campaign by only drawing 1-1 with Canada. Honduras and El Salvador then played out a goalless draw, ending Honduras winning record. Honduras had now qualified for the World Cup Finals for the first time in their history. The second place was going to be a real battle between Mexico, Canada, El Salvador and Cuba. El Salvador were up against the weakest side, Haiti. Cuba were to play Canada and Mexico, previously one of the favourites, probably had to beat Honduras to qualify.
First up, El Salvador beat Haiti, 1-0 with a goal from Huezo. El Salvador had only scored 2 goals in the 5 matches in this round but had now put themselves in with a great chance of going through, although their goal difference may not be enough.
Next up was Cuba v Canada. El Salvador’s win over Haiti meant Cuba couldn’t qualify, but a win for Canada would send them through as they’d scored more goals than El Salvador. Cuba scored first through Nunez but then Wes McLeod equalised just into the second half. Rodriguez then put Cuba back in front only for Bob Iarusci to bring the Canadians level again. But the game ended 2-2 and for Canada, the heartbreak of knowing just one more goal may have got them to the finals.
So to the final match of the qualifying round, Honduras v Mexico. Honduras was already through and any victory for Mexico would be enough to join them, as their goal difference was already superior to El Salvador. But the Mexicans just couldn’t break through and the game ended 0-0. Mexico only had themselves to blame by drawing too many matches.
QUALIFIERS: Honduras and El Salvador