Fixing Canadian soccer necessitates changing the conversation from obligation to opportunity

Andrew Bucholtz
The Eh Game

The key problem with Canadian soccer isn't the 8-1 loss in Honduras that killed Canada's chances of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, although that debacle was the lowest point this team had hit in decades. It's not the utter lack of effort shown by the Canadian team, although that raises plenty of questions of its own. It's not the dismal preparation or failed in-match adjustments of head coach Stephen Hart, although those demand their own accounting, as does the Canadian Soccer Association's decision to tab a man with Hart's utter lack of senior-level experience as the program's head coach. It's not the still-existent flaws in the CSA, the problems with player development and recruitment, or the hugely-lacking funding and attention, although those are bigger issues than anything mentioned thus far. The most crucial problem is that we're having the wrong conversation; everything in Canadian soccer's framed in terms of obligations, but it should be framed in terms of opportunities.

Changing the conversation's often seen as an advertising or public-relations ploy, or on the sports side, a way to distract from the real issues facing a team, but there's so much more to it than that when it comes to Canadian soccer. At every level, the Canadian soccer community is still having many of the wrong discussions. With talented players like Jonathan de Guzman, we're debating how to shame him into playing for Canada (and if he even deserves that right given his flirtations with the Netherlands) rather than why he chose to leave in the first place. With Hart, we're talking about what qualifications his replacement should have rather than addressing why the Canadian men's job's something few solid coaches would want. With the CSA, we spend more effort and energy discussing exactly what's wrong with it rather than why that's the case and how it can be fixed.

Those are far from the only issues. With the Canadian clubs in Major League Soccer, we talk about if they should be forced to play more Canadians rather than why they aren't already doing so.  With fans, we promote supporting Canada as an obligation, and we argue about where games should be held and what can be done to shame people into attending without discussing why they're not coming of their own volition. Perhaps most critically, with everything from the lowest-level youth club to the national development teams to the provincial soccer associations and the CSA, so many are talking about how to improve their own fiefdoms and win small victories now rather than set the country up for long-term success. These may seem like isolated problems, but they're all part of a larger conversation, and one that needs to be changed.

Canadian soccer at the moment revolves around obligation, but it should be a conversation about opportunity.  Instead of an environment where players like de Guzman are widely blasted for not fulfilling their perceived obligation to play for the country of their birth, we need one where playing for Canada's an opportunity they want to have (and one that attracts players born in other countries), an environment where coaches and administrators at every level want to do what's best for the country as a whole, an environment where Canadian soccer's a hot bandwagon for fans and media to jump on board with, not one where people are shamed into supporting it. How do we do that? Well, it's not easy; it requires thinking big at every level, having a cohesive strategy, and being able to implement it. Fortunately for Canadian soccer, there are recent, concrete examples of this kind of conversation change, and they're not far away.

What comes to mind is the Olympics. Before the Vancouver/Whistler Games in 2010, the focus was shifted from taking part and picking up a reasonable quantity of medals to "owning the podium". It took a massive amount of effort to pick up the funding required for an ambitious plan like that and shift the majority of that funding from those who could meet Games qualification standards to those who were legitimate medal threats, and substantial opposition was faced along the way, but it largely worked; Canada finished those games with 14 gold medals, four more than second-place Germany, and finished with 26 medals overall, third behind the Americans and the Germans. That approach also largely paid off this summer; Canada finished 13th in total medals, just shy of the Canadian Olympic Committee's goal of a top-12 finish, but a step up from the 15th notched in 2008 and a huge ways above the 19th-place finish in 2004. Perhaps most importantly, though, Canada's Olympic efforts have become something everyone from aspiring athletes to fans to corporate sponsors to goverments to individual donors wants to be associated with. No one's shamed into competing for Canada, watching Canadian Olympians or supporting them, and in most of the Olympic sports, the focus of everyone from coaches to competitors to administrators has shifted to the big picture. That's what needs to happen in soccer.

Much of this is already taking place on the women's side, and appropriately enough, a key turning point there was this summer's Olympics. The team's battle through the group stage, perseverance through a controversial loss to the U.S. and ultimate bronze-medal triumph made them Canadian heroes and proved to be one of the Games' most memorable moments. People weren't shamed into watching or supporting them; they wanted to. There are concerns on the women's side about how long-term this success can be, as they face many of the same player development issues the men do, but the CSA is making progress on implementing promising national guidelines, and if there's ever going to be a moment that inspires young players to dream of playing for Canada and inspires coaches to develop their players' long-term talent instead of focusing on winning now, this summer's Games would be it.

What's really interesting on the women's side is that this kind of thinking big and thinking opportunistically started long before the Games, though, particularly with the CSA's coaching moves. They went from Even Pellerud, a talented Norwegian who had established Canada as a decent program but hadn't been able to break through to the top tier of teams, to Carolina Morace, a gifted Italian coach but one who figured Canada was lucky to have her and should conform to her whims, to John Herdman, an Englishman who left a much safer and easier job in New Zealand to take on the difficult task of redeeming Canada from a dismal 2011 Women's World Cup showing and did so spectacularly well, fusing Morace's technical style with the physical talents of the players he had. Herdman certainly played his own role in changing the conversation about Canada's women's team, but he wouldn't have taken the job if there wasn't opportunity already there.

How can that be duplicated on the men's side? Well, it's obviously a much harder task, as hundreds of countries intensely focus on doing well in men's soccer, while only 10 to 20 heavily invest in the women's side. The base principle is the same, though; get people excited about the opportunities here, and that starts with each and every fan out there. As Richard Whitall points out, there's plenty any individual can do, from lobbying the CSA to improve and implement developmental standards to taking coaching courses and volunteering with local clubs. The most important element may come on the financial side, though, and that's where the perception matters most.

Especially right now, Canadian men's soccer is seen as a failure, an obligation, something where we try for the sake of it but don't really care. That perception can change. Lobby for individuals, corporations and governments at every level to get involved, from funding the national team to building better local fields to sponsoring coaching clinics. Get local and provincial clubs and associations to shift their focus from nabbing low-level trophies to developing players for the long haul. Make Canadian players stars, not villains; how many Canadians aside from the hardcore soccer fans knew much about men's captain Kevin McKenna before the Honduras loss? Talk about them, write about them, lobby media outlets for coverage of them. Even more importantly, get Canadians to care about the up-and-coming players and persuade them that representing Canada can be a great and exciting thing, not something they should feel obligated to do. It's the same on the sponsorship front, and on the coaching front; this is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a huge Canadian sporting movement, and it should be sold as such, not something anyone feels like they have to do.

Most crucially, we need to move on from all the failures over the years, from all the petty regional fights, from all the players scapegoated for going elsewhere, from all of Canadian soccer's past mistakes. Shift the discussion from everything we've done wrong to the potential we have if we ever get it right. This country should have so many edges in soccer, given the amount of people we have playing, the tremendous infrastructure and organization we have compared to many CONCACAF competitors, the professional teams and academy systems we have and the amount of individual, corporate and government money that's potentially out there. Let's change the conversation from our failures and our obligations to our opportunities. It's not going to be easy at all, but it's definitely possible. Past World Cup qualifiers from CONCACAF like Honduras (2010), Trinidad and Tobago (2006), Costa Rica (2006 and 2002) and Jamaica (1998) have done so much with so little. Instead of focusing on how little we've done, how about we get excited about what we could do?