More kids play organized soccer than any other sport in Canada. But when it comes to building a true soccer culture, the country is at a crossroads. We can sit back and simply be satisfied with encouraging kids to play soccer to promote an active lifestyle, or we can capitalize on the popularity of the sport to build elite, international talent.
While the women's national team has thrived, admittedly in an environment in which there are fewer nations competing and most countries started on more or less of an even footing, the men's team started generations behind countries where the sport was already long established. Sadly, we have seen the gap grow.
The result: Every four years, when the eyes of the world turn to the greatest single sporting event on the planet, Canadians are left to cheer for the countries of their ancestors.
So, why is Canada in this position, and are we moving in the right direction?
While I am optimistic that we are beginning to improve our international standing, the road ahead will be very long and tremendously difficult.
The first thing we need to become more competitive is better infrastructure. When John Herdman was brought on board to lead the women's program in 2011, he was hired to overhaul the entire program from the ground up.
Herdman's goal was to ensure that all elite-level teams were trained with a consistent philosophy, with a clear style of play identified for the senior team and supported and taught at the under-14, under-17 and under-20 levels. It is working, and it is a model that needs to be replicated in the men's program.
A national team needs an identity. There is a reason Italy always produces tremendous defenders, why Brazil and Argentina are factories for attacking players, and why Spain thrives on ball control. It is taught and instilled at a young age and at all levels. It both informs and inspires the soccer culture of the country, and helps to identify the types of players we scout and develop. Canada does not yet have an identity.
At the elite men's level, the training academies that we are now seeing from the three Major League Soccer franchises in Canada are a humble starting point. We have seen a few talented players come through these ranks, but we need more if we are to grow as a force in the game. We are still losing too many of our best young players to better academies and training facilities across the pond, often resulting in these players playing for their adopted homelands (see: Jonathan de Guzman, the Netherlands).
We also need to focus on improving coaching at all levels. It is fair to say that if not for my mom volunteering and coaching my house-league games when I was a young girl, I would never have played international soccer. However, our system is still too reliant upon volunteers with big hearts and good intentions but not enough actual coaching skills. We need to establish guidelines that coaches must adhere to at the club, provincial and national levels.
With better coaching comes better skill and a more successful and attractive brand of soccer that helps to attract and retain talented athletes. When I made my debut for the national team at the age of 15, we had a reputation for being a gritty team. The women's team that took home the bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012 won the hearts of the public and the admiration of its peers for playing a more open and attractive brand of soccer. This speaks to the development of skills and the adherence to a playing philosophy instilled by high-level coaches. It's a path we must continue to explore.
Wall-to-wall coverage for this summer's World Cup will help build more awareness and passion for the sport. But even more important will be what girls and boys can aspire to when they see Canada play host next summer to two major events that will bring the action to their backyards.
I'm proud to play a role as an official ambassador for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada and as a mentor for CIBC Team Next, a program that provides mentorship and funds to athletes who hope to represent Canada at the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games in Toronto.
One of the athletes I mentor, and who will be participating in both of these events, is Jessie Fleming. Like me, she made her debut with the national team at the age of 15. She is the future of the sport in Canada and she has benefitted from an environment that is vastly improved and more sophisticated than what I experienced. We need to produce more players like Jessie, men and women: smart, focused, skilled and driven to be the best.
Building a sustainable national soccer identity is not going to happen overnight. Our women's team suffered many lopsided losses to teams such as the U.S. and Germany before our training and skill-development programs kicked in. Now we are competing for medals each time we take to the pitch. Canada may never be the dominant force in men's soccer, but like the women's national team, we should absolutely expect to be a constant presence on the game's biggest stage. I believe, in time, we can get there.
Kara Lang is a former member of Canada's women's national soccer team, during which it competed at the 2003 and 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup and 2008 Olympic Games