As Canada Soccer’s presence grows, Iran debacle must serve as a cautionary tale

Canada players celebrate their win following second half CONCACAF World Cup soccer qualifying action against Jamaica, in Toronto on Sunday, March 27, 2022. (Nathan Denette/CP)

With great power comes great responsibility.

Canada Soccer has become a power in our country. It has steadily carved out a foothold in our sporting landscape with the program’s overall likability, diversity, youthfulness and recent success. The goal is for Canada to become a power in world football.

But as that power grows, you have to be very careful with how you wield it. Canada Soccer learned that lesson swiftly, facing heavy criticism for scheduling a friendly match vs. Iran in Vancouver for June 5. Following backlash from multiple corners, Canada Soccer announced on Thursday that it has cancelled the match.

The main contentious issue with hosting Iran on Canadian soil was the fact that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020, only minutes after it took off from Tehran, killing 176 people — including 85 Canadians. The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims asked Canada Soccer “to cancel the game immediately.”

Also problematic was the CBC report showing photos of Hamid Estili, the head of Iran’s team, at a party last month with alleged Iranian intelligence informant Mahmoud Khazein, who has ties to the IRGC. Khazein has been wanted by the FBI for over a year for plotting to kidnap international targets, including three Canadians.

And of course, Canada doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran, which meant there was also a chance the game wouldn’t have proceeded even before Canada Soccer reacted. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t support the match against Iran, saying it “wasn’t a very good idea.” The Iranian players’ VISAs were also not yet approved.

Canada’s high commissioner to the U.K and former special adviser on Flight PS752, Ralph Goodale, tweeted that Canada Soccer’s behaviour was “repugnant” and “calls into question both the competence and values of the organization.”

Canada Soccer says it called off the match against Iran because it “became significantly divisive.” The stance is a reversal after originally defending the game under the guise of sports as an ability to unite.

But the game didn’t “become divisive“; the prospect of playing Iran was always going to be divisive. To state otherwise is suggesting that there were two polarizing sides to this issue at one point.

Nobody outside of Canada Soccer felt the game was a good idea or necessary.

At the end of the day, the families of the Canadians that were killed on Flight PS752 didn’t want this game played and that’s all that should matter. Those are the only votes that should have been cast.

But beyond that, the Canadian players also made their feelings clear to the federation. Veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio confirmed that the players sent an email to a senior Canada Soccer official to share their concerns.

“We thought it was best that maybe this game would not be played,” Osorio said Friday after Toronto FC training. “My feeling is that around the (Canada Soccer) federation, it ended up being the same feeling as well.”

You can understand the position of the players. What was supposed to feel like a west coast homecoming and celebration of the team’s recent FIFA World Cup qualification was likely going to become a human rights demonstration. The likelihood of protests around and potentially inside the stadium during the match was of concern.

There was even word that some of the players started to receive personal messages on social media from detractors, and pleas from loved ones of the people who were lost on Flight PS752.

That essentially put the players into two camps: Those that were uncomfortable with the message it would send to play in a game against Iran, and those that were uncomfortable with the fact it wasn’t their decision, yet they’d be left to answer uncomfortable questions about it.

Outside of the ethical reasons for not wanting to play vs. Iran, the players also have to consider how those types of decisions reflect on them as people and brands. The players themselves are now also recognizable brands, and have relationships with businesses and advertisers that they need to be mindful of.

That dynamic is also true for the program as a whole. You could argue there is no national sports organization in our country with a more upward trajectory than Canada Soccer right now. The line of corporate partners who want to align themselves with an ascending team and a growing sport is increasing, something the program has not been able to say very often over the last few decades. You never want to give anyone a reason not to give you money. And mistakes like this would qualify.

Although Canada Soccer was criticized for the initial decision, it is now being applauded for rectifying it. Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge stated “we commend Canada Soccer for making this decision and we look forward to cheering on our men’s soccer team during the 2022 World Cup.”

Which begs the question: Given Canada Soccer’s growing visibility, is it time to cast a wider net for feedback when making such decisions? Its statement seems to indicate that’s the case:

“Canada Soccer will be conducting a thorough review of our processes for the hosting of international matches to ensure no stone is left unturned in our pursuit of excellence both on and off the pitch, including consultation with all stakeholders.”

You’ll never make everyone happy, though. This news was not met with understanding in Iran.

The Iranian team told Iranian state media that Canada Soccer not only invited Iran but was also paying $400,000 to play the game. That would have marked the first time in over two decades Iran would profit off a friendly match. It’s common to pay for a team’s travel expenses for a friendly, but according to the head of Iran’s team, they could’ve banked $200,000 after paying for the team’s expenses.

The Iranian Football Federation will also be seeking $10 million in damages from Canada Soccer for cancelling, according to a tweet by Sina Kalhor, Iran’s deputy minister of sport.

News agency Nour called Canada Soccer’s decision “political” and “unsportsmanlike”.

On paper, the game made sense as the Canadian men’s team looks to taper up its level of competition en route to the World Cup. Iran, one of Asia’s best football nations, is 21st in the FIFA rankings, ahead of Canada, which is 38th.

But there is a reason Iran has struggled to book friendlies ahead of World Cups historically.

The lesson here is that everything — including big-time, high-performance sports — is political. That is why Russia won’t be participating in the upcoming World Cup. The irony is that the game vs. Iran was close to sold out and the Canadian team will be participating in a World Cup in Qatar, which has its own laundry list of human rights offences that are equally problematic.

What is or isn’t appropriate is a room full of grey, but in a sporting landscape of constant calculated risk assessment, the cost-benefit analysis of playing Iran never made sense.

The good news is it’s never too late to do the right thing. After cancelling its friendly vs. Iran, Canada Soccer could look to make amends down the road by scheduling a friendly match with an opponent like Ukraine, which is still in the process of its World Cup qualifying campaign. It would make for a tough test on the pitch (Ukraine is ranked 24th in the world) and Canada has the largest Ukrainian community in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia. Proceeds from the match could help support refugees of the current war.

And then, when Canada is at the World Cup scoring its first goal or potentially getting a first win, this misstep will hopefully be just a footnote in the feel-good story of the team’s ascension.

But if this doesn’t become a cautionary tale, that ascension might be short-lived.

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