Years ago, I stood alongside a Dutchman named Patrick Ladru on a patchy soccer field in Brampton, as he watched 100 or so Canadian kids go through their paces.
Ladru is one of the technical directors of the world's most storied football academy, Ajax of Amsterdam's De Toekomst (The Future).
Ladru was panning over the kids like a buyer at a cattle market (which, in some senses, he is). He was largely unimpressed.
"Parents here want to win," he fairly spat. "Winning is not important. Having fun is important. Skills are important."
Canada has never been able to learn that developmental lesson. It's one of many reasons we have not fielded a men's team at the World Cup since 1986. It's the reason that, barring blind luck, we will never field one again.
Canadian soccer is trying to change. It's trying too late. Having long ago passed us by, the world is now lapping us.
No history in the sport
Participation in the game of soccer in this country has never been higher. Nearly 900,000 Canadians are registered players at some level or another. That's 50 per cent more than play organized hockey.
"Our sport has never been stronger," Canadian soccer's technical director, Tony Fonseca, said this week. If so, it doesn't show where it matters (for our men's team, at least).
The senior men's squad is edging up to two years without an international win. They only recently broke a 14-month goalless streak.
In 2012, the men were ranked 64th in the world. They're down to 110th – in the same neighbourhood as Luxembourg and Equatorial Guinea. There are a variety of reasons for this, all structural. All those causes add up to the same effect – Canadian professionals are not good enough.
Let's start at the beginning.
Canada is, by world standards, a small country with no history in the sport. You can be one or the other, but not both.
Brazil, to take just one example, is good at soccer not because it has created a corporate framework to develop players. It's good because kids obsessively play the game. They are given a ball – sometimes homemade from strips of cloth – as soon as they can walk. They play from sun-up to sun-down. Uninstructed, they master the building blocks of excellence – dribbling and tricks, keepy-uppy and monkey-in-the-middle.
The most important skills in soccer are developed in isolation.
Without those, no amount of training or expert coaching will turn a talented player into a top-class pro.
And this is how we play the game in Canada – in an organized fashion, on the weekends, parents shrieking at the touchline, someone keeping score, worrying about wins at an age when wins have no bearing on reaching the highest level.
De Toekomst fields teams beginning at the age of six. Until they are teenagers, they don't bother with scoreboards. Using this oft-copied method, they have produced some of the greatest players in history – Johan Cruyff, Frank Rijkaard, Denis Bergkamp. De Toekomst has a saying that captures their internal philosophy: "The first team must win. Every other team may win."
That's the first problem, and it is insoluble. Many Canadians play this game. The vast majority are not sufficiently passionate about it at a young enough age.
After years of corrosive in-fighting between its fractured potentates, the CSA is trying to solve the next issue in the chain – organized instruction and a straight line from the youth game to the national team.
This past week, it unveiled that framework called the Canadian Soccer Pathway. Over a 30-minute presentation, five speakers provided their vision. It was an almost unintelligible collection of buzzwords and MBA bafflegab. By the end of it, you had no idea what exactly you'd been told.
Sitting there, one couldn't help but wonder about the connection between the passion that creates elite performers and Canada's PowerPoint approach to voodooing it up. That is to say, there is none.
However, this is something. The CSA plans to create a baseline of competence among thousands of volunteer coaches across the country. It will fund elite training centres – "elite," until recently, being a dirty word when it comes to our utopian vision that all kids are "participants" of equal merit – to identity the best talent and push it forward.
It's not yet clear how it will hurdle one of the thorniest political problems at the youth level – whether for-profit private academies will be allowed to compete against non-profit house league teams. Until now, that's been largely verboten since the for-profit kids tend to be so much better.
This is all in an effort to lift young players up the ladder. But where does the ladder end?
"I get asked this question all the time, 'How do you make it in soccer?' And I can't answer it," Jason deVos says.
DeVos is a broadcaster and former captain of the Canadian national team. He's also the CSA's most high-profile critic.
"If you ask any hockey dad at any rink across the country, 'How do you get to the NHL,' they can tell you. Nobody can tell you how to make it to the national [soccer] team. That pathway doesn't exist."
While largely complementary about the CSA's latest efforts – he was raging against it as a player back when it was more insular and inscrutable than the Politburo – he's still wary. "I've got a million questions about the next step."
Players are liquid assets
In every soccer power, the national governing body has little to do with the development of talent. That job is largely left to professional clubs.
Players are identified as young as five or six. Many attend highly structured boarding schools run by teams.
There will be only one Canadian-born player at this summer's World Cup – Scarborough's Jonathan de Guzman. He joined the academy of Feyenoord at the age of 12, and eventually became a Dutch citizen. All the hand-wringing over de Guzman's change in national stripe ignores a basic truth – if he hadn't moved to the Netherlands as a child, he wouldn't be anywhere near as good as he is now.
No taxpayer-funded national body can compete with these market forces.
Soccer differs from every other global sport in one key sense – players are liquid assets.
In baseball or hockey, teams arrive late in the developmental process. They hope to recoup their (often minimal) investment indirectly through championships or tickets sold.
Soccer teams are driven by a more direct profit motive. The lesser teams are all in a race to procure talent at the youngest possible age. Once fully developed, players can be sold for cash.
According to a new study, Lionel Messi's objective value (which is to say, one much lower than some team-owning Abu Dhabi sheik would be willing to pay for him) is $300-million.
Messi was weaned at the most successful academy of the past decade, Barcelona's La Masia (The Farmhouse). Most of the key players on the defending World Cup champion Spanish side – Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, et al – were blooded there.
Completely separate from the gargantuan war chest Barcelona has to buy talent, La Masia has a $30-million budget. The CSA receives less than half that. That's only one team among hundreds.
How can you compete? You can't.
Canada has only three seriously professional teams – Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. They've all begun academy programs, but the results are years away from showing at the top level. Between the three of them this season, only two Canadians rank in the top-10 in minutes played for their respective sides.
"The problem is what they come with to the national team," said current Canadian captain Julian de Guzman. "When I came up, younger players were getting a lot of playing time with their clubs. Now, there's only a handful. There's actually a big chunk who aren't getting any."
The last decent generation of Canadian players were largely developed in the semi-pro ranks of this country, and then snaked their way to better clubs in Europe. That avenue has closed.
Canadians are being squeezed at both ends. Smaller European clubs would rather develop their own saleable assets from childhood, rather than spend on foreigners. The bigger teams and their widening scouting networks now have the world to choose from. Canadians don't figure in that equation.
In a perfect scenario, Canadians would hop from the developmental stage to Major League Soccer and then launch toward Europe. That isn't happening.
Therefore, our next generation of male players – regardless of how well they're trained – has nowhere to play. The results are showing at the international level.
Nevertheless, the CSA is infused with irrational exuberance. In his remarks last week, Fonseca spoke about a breakthrough that might come in "four to eight years" – so, at the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar.
"I think we can do this very fast," he said. Given the realities on the ground, it's not at all clear why he thinks that.
"I don't think that's possible," deVos says. "You're not going to see the benefit of these changes for 12-15 years. The players that we have in the system now have all the baggage that the previous system burdened them with."
While the Canadian men are trying to catch up to their female counterparts, the world around them continues to press its lead. Everywhere else, they are driven by something more than a bureaucratic mission to be good at the game of football. Unlike us, they have a cultural need to do it.