Remember how good it felt, way back in … March?
The never-in-doubt victory over Jamaica on a frigid day at BMO Field to secure Canada’s berth in the World Cup for the first time since 1986 released decades of pent-up frustration. Bad memories were exorcised, the stadium overflowed with giddy joy, there were tears shed aplenty both on and off the pitch.
At the outset of pandemic-delayed qualifying, not many outside the team and its coach John Herdman believed that Canada had a chance to get to Qatar 2022.
Now, the miracle was official.
There were already whispers that day that a big-name opponent would be coming to Canada for a friendly in the June window. (Did somebody say Argentina?)
But even back in those heady days, anyone who had spent enough time around the sport in this country was wondering whether the custodians of the game were up to the challenge ahead, given the checkered history of the Canadian Soccer Association.
And there were unsettling hints of past as prologue.
Former members of the men’s national team were invited onto the field after the Jamaica match to act as a guard of honour in ceremonies to celebrate qualification. It was a lovely idea, and an appropriate nod to those who had represented their country proudly through much tougher, less rewarding times.
But, oh the execution. For some unfathomable reason, not all of the former CMNT players present were invited to participate. Some who were at the stadium that day simply headed home at the final whistle, left off the list.
A slight? An oversight? Either way, it was unforgivable.
And even as the men were wrapping up qualification, the CSA was locked in a contentious negotiation with the players of the Women’s national team over their next contract. During some dark days for the men, it was the women who won Canadians’ hearts, winning three consecutive Olympic medals, culminating in a trip to the top of the podium in Tokyo last summer.
In the United States, the women took their fight for equal compensation public, and to the courts, where they triumphed. The Canadian women chose not to go that route. They still haven’t — and still no deal is in sight.
So how would the CSA deal with its newfound prosperity, including the millions of dollars flowing automatically from World Cup qualification? How would it function with the bright lights on, facing scrutiny from outside the insular Canadian soccer community for the first time, enjoying a huge influx of cash but also the challenge of how to distribute that found money in a way that was both fair to the players and help build a foundation for the future?
We have our answer: not very well at all.
In May, the CSA announced that the Canadian men would play a single friendly in the June window against Iran. (Negotiations for a match against Tunisia, which would have been the perfect opponent in terms of Canada’s World Cup preparation, had somehow fallen apart.) That decision was made without consulting any of the other stakeholders.
If they had, surely someone in the room would have raised a hand and suggested that perhaps it was a bad idea to pay a pariah-nation, whose sports infrastructure is inextricably tied to its political infrastructure, $400,000 to play a soccer match, especially given that said pariah nation had two years earlier shot down a civilian airliner, killing dozens of Canadian citizens and permanent residents.
But in the CSA echo-chamber, nothing.
The predictable retreat was relatively swift — but not before all of the tickets for the match were sold, and not before the issuance of an unsigned press release, in which the CSA stuck to its guns. A second, unsigned press release soon followed, cancelling the match.
Dr. Nick Bontis, the president of the CSA and Earl Cochrane, the acting general secretary (who it appears will soon have the “acting” part removed from his title) were nowhere to be seen.
Panama was hastily scheduled as a replacement opponent for the friendly — from a soccer perspective hardly optimal, but better than no match at all. But immediately after the Canadian players assembled in Vancouver for their camp, the story broke that they were refusing to train because of a dispute over how the $10-million windfall the CSA will receive from FIFA as a reward for qualifying for the World Cup will be distributed.
It is not a surprise that Canada will be receiving that money. It is not a surprise that the players believe they are entitled to a sizable chunk of it. It is not a surprise that they would expect World Cup tickets and travel and accommodations for their families. That’s how it’s done in big-time soccer nations for whom World Cup qualification isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime novelty.
But the response — again with no names attached on the CSA side — was to cry poor, to paint the players’ asks as unreasonable, to talk about how money was needed to build a national training centre and to pay the women, and to suggest that their hands were somehow tied because of an arrangement with their commercial partners, Canadian Soccer Business.
Here are a couple of easy-to-remember rules of thumb when it comes to spectator sport, though it’s amazing how often they are ignored.
The athletes are the product. In some cases — like this case — the coach can also be part of the product.
No one is buying a ticket or investing in a sponsorship to watch an owner or a general manager in action, let alone an association president or an acting general secretary.
The job of administrators is to get out in front of trouble, to take the heat and accept responsibility, to make it clear where the buck stops, and at all costs to protect the relationship between the fans and those they idolize.
Instead, at the beginning of what should be a triumphal march to Qatar, the players chose not to play the match against Panama to make their point. The sport has a self-inflicted black eye at a moment of historically high soccer interest in Canada.
It’s getting awfully crowded under that bus. We are still waiting for the buck to stop.
And we are a little over five months away from the World Cup.