Soccer: Canadian players refuse to take field against Panama in a friendly

Standoff over World Cup bonuses between players and Soccer Canada  has morphed into a major crisis. Canadian team refused to take field against Panama in a World Cup preparatory friendly game in Vancouver yesterday. Earlier, the team refused to join practice sessions on both Friday and Saturday.

Canada has qualified for the FIFA World Cup after a gap of 36 years. But its preparations have been hitting a wall. 

The players are asking for a 40% cut of World Cup revenues with the association offering just 10% of a FIFA windfall that is likely in the $10-15 million range.

The feel-good melody of World Cup qualification  has already hit a sour note with Soccer Canada initially arranging  last week a friendly against Iran, two years after 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents were killed when a passenger plane was shot down by Iranian forces shortly after leaving Tehran.

It was cancelled following strong protests.

Last weekend’s shocking developments brought further ignominy on an association  that has been long blighted by dysfunction and underperformance.

Canada’s team has been refusing to attend its training sessions and now refused to play the  hurriedly organised  second friendly game, this time against Panama.

The team that  bridged a 36-year gap to qualify for the Qatar World Cup had taken a protest against its own governing body to its most drastic point. 

Canada Soccer had managed to lose not one but two friendlies in less than a week and a whole lot more besides. It also gets deprived of millions of dollars in ticket revenue and oceans of goodwill.

A statement from the players two hours before kick-off made clear that a standoff over World Cup  bonuses has now swelled into something much bigger. They blasted the association, saying: “Canada Soccer has disrespected our team and jeopardized our efforts to raise the standards and effectively advance the game in Canada.” They made five significant demands which included Qatar 2022 payments, but also aimed to reshape how the game is run here.

 A large number of soccer fans, wo had assembled outside the venue of the friendly in Vancouver, endorsed  the players’ lengthy statement and lamented that a team that had become only the second Canadian team in 36 years to qualify for a World was now being forced to prove why success has been unprecedented.

Canada Soccer does not appear  to be ready to meet the demands raised by players.

Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis and Secretary  Earl Cochrane had  plenty of explanations  and apologies to the fans but little in  solution to end the current mess. 

The players are now demanding changes in leadership of Canada Soccer, an equitable pay and bonus structure with the country’s women’s team, a 40% cut of Qatar prize money, better perks for the tournament and, clarity on a 2019 agreement the association made with an entity called Canada Soccer Business (CSB), closely tied to the country’s upstart domestic competition, the Canadian Premier League. 

The 10-year deal sees CSB guarantee Canada Soccer $3m in annual revenue, but CSB get to capitalize on both the men’s and women’s national teams by handling all sponsorship and broadcast deals. 

“We want to know who signed this deal that has hand cuffed our association,” the player statement read. “Why have Canada Soccer given up autonomy of the greatest opportunity to grow our program in years?”

Bontis defended the CSB agreement and said it had been “pivotal” to growing the game here. He also claimed that the men’s demands related to World Cup finances were “untenable”.

“If we as an association only had the men’s team and the women’s team to take care of and nothing else … we still could not afford this proposal,” he said pointing to programs like futsal, para sport, underage teams and referees. But that immediately begged the question as to why World Cup revenue should be needed to find such areas. If Herdman’s side had fallen short in qualification, would those programs have simply been wound up?

There were a few more answers from the pair but each begged more questions. The most pressing one, of course, is what next? Curacao is the literal answer. The minnows are due to pitch up in Vancouver this Thursday for Concacaf Nations League action. Whether they will get a game or, like Panama, merely fly all the way for a private training session at BC Place remains to be seen.

The leadership were headed straight back to the team hotel and said they were ready to talk to the players again. But given how the initial conversations went, things weren’t looking good. One source told the Toronto Star that Bontis had got on his knees and begged players to take Canada Soccer’s deal ahead of the Panama game.

The crisis has been further aggravated as  the country’s women’s team  also released a statement on twitter that took a more positive tone to Canada Soccer’s most recent offer while also apparently taking issue with the wording of the men’s statement around equitable pay.