Former Canada Soccer president Jim Fleming dies at age 87 on eve of World Cup

Former Canada Soccer president Jim Fleming, who helped lead Canada to its first men's World Cup, has died on the eve of Canada's return to the soccer showcase.

Canada Soccer said Fleming died Thursday in Edmonton. He was 87.

"We lost a great man today who was a fantastic father and our hero," Sean Fleming, a former Canadian national team youth coach, said in a social media post. "He fought a courageous battle against COVID. (Canada Soccer) ⁩ now has a great fan in heaven and has a great seat for all the games. RIP Dad. God Bless."

Fleming, a member of the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame, served as president from 1982 to 1986 and then again from 1998 to 2002. He made some key hires during both tenures, putting England's Tony Waiters and Germany's Holger Osieck in charge of the Canadian men with on-field success to follow.

Former Canada Soccer COO Kevan Pipe remember Fleming as "a person who forced an organization to get better. And to get better by thinking of different ways of doing things, of changing organizational directions. And bringing in some people to be part of that new change process.

"And that's a pretty high compliment in my books."

Waiters led Canada to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. And the Canadian men under Osieck won the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup which qualified Canada for the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan.

Pipe, who spent 25 years at Canada Soccer, remembered Fleming one of the smartest men he has ever met.

"At the same time, in some ways — and I mean this in a very very complimentary fashion — he was a disrupter. He would go in and shake an organization to think of other ways of doing business. Which in business you must do. We all have to change to changing times. And as a result it would case some degree of discomfort. But it would also force the organization to get better.

Born Feb. 28, 1935, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Fleming moved to Canada with his wife Kathleen in 1968 and went on to worked for the Alberta government for more than 30 years.

During his first term as president, Fleming was in charge during the amalgamation of the Canadian Youth Soccer Association into Canada Soccer in 1982 and the inauguration of Canada Soccer's first women's national championship that same year.

He also oversaw the hiring of Waiters as national men's coach in 1982. The Canadian men went on to qualify for the 1984 Olympics — losing to Brazil in the quarterfinals in a penalty shootout — and won the CONCACAF Championship in 1985 to qualify for the World Cup in Mexico.

"I am very happy for the players and coach Tony Waiters in reaching (the FIFA World Cup in) Mexico. All of them overcame trials and tribulations in magnificent fashion in the qualifying rounds," Fleming said in 1985. "In short, I am a very proud Canadian."

During his second stint at the helm, he oversaw the 1998 hiring of Osieck, who led the Canada men to the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup crown.

"We haven't been able to do ever since," said Pipe. "Now hopefully in the next couple of weeks we see this incredible squad of young talented players make their mark in the (Qatar) World Cup and cause a lot of exciting things to happen. That's probably an extension of what happened 20 years ago."

In late 1999, Fleming put Norway's Even Pellerud in charge of the Canadian women. Pellerud gave a debut to a 16-year-old Christine Sinclair and led Canada to fourth place at the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2003.

Fleming also served on the CONCACAF executive committee from 1986 to 1998, including eight years as senior vice-president from 1990 to 1998. In 2002, he was honoured by the CONCACAF Hall of Fame and received the FIFA Order of Merit.

He was honoured as an Alberta Soccer Life Member in 1987 and was a recipient of Canada Soccer's Aubrey Sanford Meritorious Service Award in 1997. Before serving as Canada Soccer president, he headed Alberta Soccer from 1975 to 1980.

Fleming's work ethic was intense.

"As much as you might moan about your own hours or time or what have you, he would always be leading by example. Nobody worked as hard as him," Pipe said.

Fleming was also a Canada Soccer Life Member, a distinction presented "to those who have rendered valuable service to Canada."

Fleming is survived by his children Sean, Anne, Paul and Angela. Kathleen, his wife of 60 years, died in 2016.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press