This past Sunday, more than 20,000 fans were preparing to gather at B.C. Place in Vancouver to watch the Canadian men's soccer team (CANMNT) play Panama in an international friendly.
But the players did not take to the pitch and the match was cancelled a few hours before the whistle. Why? Because of a contract dispute. The players, as first reported by TSN's Rick Westhead, released a letter explaining their position.
They had questions and concerns with respect to their own pay and the payout by FIFA for qualifying for the World Cup — approximately $10 million. According to the letter, the players are asking for 40 per cent of the monies as well as compensation for their families to attend the tournament in Qatar later this year.
Since July last year, the Canadian women's and men's national teams have bolted to the top of an Olympic podium and finished first in World Cup qualifying, respectively. The men's side has qualified for this year's men's World Cup — something not accomplished since 1986. The momentum is booming and the cheers from the fans are loud.
Thanks to the continued success of the women's side, Canada has always been a soccer nation and the men's performance has only reaffirmed this. But while excitement among players and fans is palpable, there have been a series of missteps at the hands of Canada Soccer executives.
Last week, a planned match between CANMNT and Iran was cancelled after public outcry, including a rebuke from the Prime Minister. Although the opportunity to play against a higher-ranked FIFA team made sense from a pure competition perspective, the social implications of playing Iran are unfavourable. Two years ago, a passenger plane was shot down by Iranian forces killing all 176 people on board, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents. That Canada Soccer was not able to identify the opponent as a potential problem raises questions about the leadership. Our athletes deserve better.
That the men's contract is not already settled mere months before the World Cup is also not a good look.
In their letter, the players said they had been "disrespected" and said their relationship with their employer "has been strained for years." The language used is intentional and important to note.
They also asked questions regarding the transparency of Canada Soccer's financials, including a deal it made with the Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) the players claim "handcuffs" the organization.
LISTEN: What equal pay for U.S. women's soccer means for Canadian players:
Truth be told, this is not the first time that one of Canada's national teams has had questions about contracts or payment. The Canadian Women's National Team (CANWNT) has been in negotiations on their contract since January. They have their own World Cup qualifying matches beginning in July and as the defending Olympic gold medallists, will be expected to perform well.
But the CANWNT has told us before and warned us that the Canada Soccer is not living up to their standards and needs. Diana Matheson, a former team captain now retired, has been very public about how the organization needs to step up and create better earning opportunities and financial support for the women's side.
After winning gold in Tokyo, team stars Christine Sinclair and Steph Labbé went on CBC to talk about the need for domestic leagues and support for women's soccer in Canada.
While the CANMNT did call for "an equitable structure" with the women's team, the CANWNT players responded with their own letter to clarify some of their issues. It is unclear whether the CANMNT consulted the women's team before issuing their statement, but the inclusion and recognition of the women's side are important. Arguably, it is not something that Canadian soccer has seen before: the men's team supporting the women so publicly.
The CANWNT want not just FIFA percentages to be equal with the men, but also the actual salaries, benefits and social supports. They have also been public advocates for survivors of abuse at the hands of the federation. I broke that story in October 2021.
The U.S. Women's National Team recently won a lawsuit that resulted in a landmark contract negotiation. Key to that victory was Cindy Parlow Cone, a former USWNT player and current president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, and perhaps that is just the type of leader required for Canada Soccer. Someone who understands the needs of the players, and the culture around the teams. A leader who can communicate and is intentional with their actions. Perhaps the old boys in the boardroom are not what's needed for elite teams that have brought Canadian soccer to the world's stage in an unprecedented manner.
There are a few issues at play with the Canadian federation, among them a souring relationship with sports media, whose job it is to ask questions and create some public accountability. I spoke with colleagues who attended a press conference after Sunday's game was cancelled. Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis was flanked by Earl Cochrane, the deputy secretary-general. Bontis defended CSB agreement, but also stopped the press conference abruptly and did not take questions. It left the impression with many that Canada Soccer is in over its head.
If the leaders can't rise to the occasion and advocate for and have good relationships with the players they represent — some of whom are top players in the world — then what good are they to soccer in Canada? If they can't properly leverage the marketability of their teams to fund soccer in Canada, what good are they? The responsibility to amplify and support women's soccer is the national federation's. To ensure that matches aren't cancelled or protests don't ensue is its responsibility.
Late Sunday night, Canada Soccer and the men's players agreed on a temporary solution and the men's team resumed its training and will play their next scheduled game Thursday against Curacao in B.C. But the fact that we are less than six months away from a World Cup appearance and witnessing squabbles over preventable issues is not building faith in the leadership.
Between the distrust fostering from the men's side, and the lack of actions from the executive board, it leaves one to wonder how effective they and their leadership is in not only keeping things running smoothly, but in implementing a vision for soccer in Canada.
If Soccer Canada comes to an agreement with the players, that is a step forward after taking five steps back. It cannot function like this and maintain a respectful status and worthy reputation in the global game.