Twenty-five years ago, the best thing you could say about this country’s national soccer program was that it existed. In theory. It just didn’t appear that way if you knew anything about soccer.
Nowadays, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, Canada is a player. We’re no international power, but we are no longer the sort of ‘soccer’ country that real soccer countries put quote marks around.
An Olympic championship, a men’s World Cup appearance, a decent shot at a result in the upcoming Women’s World Cup and co-hosts of the next men’s World Cup after that.
A bunch of nations with estimable soccer histories – ones far more estimable than our own – would be pretty pleased with that string of wins.
So what’s Canada doing with this golden ticket? Arguing over who gets what gold.
The one thing Canada Soccer and its fractious national teams seem to have in abundance is shoes. Somebody’s always dropping one.
On Monday, the latest wowzers moment – Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis has resigned.
Apparently, this was less a resignation than it was a resig-firing. According to TSN, Bontis stepped aside on the same day the heads of all the provincial federations wrote him a letter requesting that he do so. Had Bontis not quit of his own volition, it’s reasonable to assume the federations intended to ensure he did so of theirs.
So what’s the problem? Money. Canada Soccer finally has some and everyone’s got their hand out.
The players on both national teams think they’re owed more, because they are the proximate cause of this windfall. The federations think they ought to be cut a break because they’re out there doing the grassroots work that feeds players into the elite system. Meanwhile, Canada Soccer is caught in what sounds like a terribly negotiated deal with an arms-length entity called Canadian Soccer Business.
Why ‘sounds like’?
Because nobody in this Canadian institution will come straight out and explain what money is available, who’s making what and how much, exactly, everyone expects to get for themselves. What we get instead are an embarrassing string of player actions, cancelled games, messages on T-shirts, strikes, threatened strikes and threatened legal actions against the threatened strikes.
Every man jack in this conflict loves three things – complaining, issuing press releases and making oblique charges that are largely incomprehensible. But most of all, complaining.
Bontis did a terrible job of managing his many angry constituents. The low-water mark of his reign came after the senior men’s team went all Teamsters Local 604 last June. They refused to take the field for a scheduled exhibition game against Panama in Vancouver.
“We will not negotiate this through the media,” Bontis said then, at a press conference in front of the media. In terms of eliciting confidence, the man wasn’t exactly Angela Merkel.
A few hours later, Bontis had given in. How much did he give in? Nobody knows. But enough to get the men (temporarily) back in line. Two weeks ago, it was the senior women’s team’s turn to show him up. In between, a strange story circulated that had the men’s head coach, John Herdman – by far the most powerful person in the entire setup – quitting Canada mid-contract to coach New Zealand instead.
“I’ve received several offers in recent months, all of which I have turned down, including an offer from New Zealand football,” Herdman said in a – you guessed it – press release.
So the No. 1 guy at your shop is out there having lunch every second Tuesday at the competition’s executive lounge, saying ‘No, I couldn’t possibly’? When he’s caught at it, he acts like that’s a completely normal thing to do? That’s supposed to make everyone feel better?
In the absence of official transparency, this doesn’t sound like a workplace grappling with fairness or equity. It sounds like one driven batty by a combination of amateur management, non-existent communication and a workforce that thinks it’s in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime gold rush.
Bontis was not an effective leader. But given the mood that appears to have taken root at the elite level of Canadian soccer, I ask you – who could be? What masochist wants this job?
Regardless of who’s fault this all is (and it’s beginning to seem like it’s everyone’s), a shining moment in Canadian sports history is becoming an endless food fight.
The players can turn this stuff on and off. One minute they’re implying their bosses are crooks and that they’re being cheated; the next they’ll have a new deal and everything’s roses again. Public histrionics are effective in sports negotiations, where everything that’s said or done is picked up by major media.
The players can swing from love to hate and back, but fans don’t work like that. If you tell them the whole setup is rotten and that they shouldn’t watch it, it’s possible they won’t. If you do it more than once, they get confused. If things keep going wrong, they’ll eventually lose patience and wander off to watch something less likely to cause whiplash.
This is what the people who run sports never seem to get. Fans will happily support a loser, as long as they like the people involved in it.
What they can’t get behind is an unlikable franchise, one that drains the fun from sports by injecting trivial (or not so trivial) concerns into the fantasy.
When we’re talking about professional athletics and not, say, nurses or members of the military, money is a trivial issue. A few dozen of you are cutting up millions of dollars. You’re arguing about who gets what flight upgrade on your many all-in trips abroad where you are treated like rock stars. If it was me, I’d probably keep that part quiet.
This should be a glorious time for everyone involved in Canadian soccer. Having failed so often, they’ve finally succeeded. Good work all. Plenty of credit to go around.
Instead, it’s a professional bloodbath, and the only piece of equipment everyone seems to show up to the stadium with these days is an axe that needs grinding.