Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

These are my cyberfied cerebral synapses ricocheting off reality as I perceive it: thoughts, opinions, passions, rants, art and poetry...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Canadian Soccer Woes

Canada’s hosting of the FIFA U-20 World Cup has again raised the question: what’s wrong with Canadian Soccer? Sadly, Canada was eliminated in the first round, and left with the distinction of being the first ever hosting nation not to have scored a goal in the tournament.

The problem with Canadian Soccer, in my opinion, is manifold. We have obvious obstacles to overcome such as climate and a small population of around 32,000,000 in the second largest national landmass on the planet. The lack of a developmental system and domestic league is also an issue. The main issue, however, is our diluted field of players.

More children are playing soccer in Canada than any other sport. You would think that this would bode well for us as a result in terms of being a soccer superpower. The problem is, while these kids are playing, they are also involved in half a dozen or so other activities ranging from Lacrosse, Hockey, music, dance, swimming, Taekwondo, etc. This is in stark contrast to my youth where, in the summer one played Baseball or, on the fringe, Soccer, and in the other three seasons: hockey. Everyday after school during Fall, Winter and Spring, my friends and I would play street hockey, pond hockey or in local hockey leagues. In the evenings we would watch our local NHL, AHL or Major Junior Hockey club play live or on TV (***all of these leagues are the envy of the hockey playing world) Lo and behold, Canada has been a hockey superpower forever. I played league soccer as a child, but my playing did not extend beyond practises and games. When I got together with my friends (most who played Baseball in leagues during the summer), we played either Baseball or Football. The fact is, we are still similar today in our lack of attention to the beautiful game does not extend beyond practices and games. Contrast that to Brazil where kids play rag ball in the slums, and where neighbourhoods are always alive with youth playing soccer. For them, soccer is the only game. They posses both skill and passion, hence why Brazil is soccer world superpower.

As a soccer dad, who plays recreational soccer along with my wife, I am absolutely mortified when games are cancelled due to rain here in Edmonton. Growing up in Nova Scotia, this was never the case – if they did we never would have got a match in! The reason is that the city doesn’t want the fields torn up. Now I can understand this for an adult recreational league, but for children coming up through the ranks, this is absurd! Canada’s 2-0 loss in the U-20 World Cup to Congo on Sunday was played in torrential rain. Was the match cancelled? No. Young players need to learn to play in all conditions. I fondly remember sliding in the mud as a child – we loved it!

Our next issue is lack of an adequate developmental system and domestic league. This hasn’t happened for a plethora of reasons. We need professional clubs in place to begin a farming system to groom young players like what you see in England for example. Enter the professional league dilemma. Canadian Soccer fans suffer from a type of penis envy when it comes to club soccer. We don’t support clubs when we do try to get something started because the standard of play doesn’t live up to what they might see from the English, German, Spanish or French leagues. My question is: why can’t we support both? I am an Aston Villa fan and watch the English Premiership every Saturday on TV. I am even more excited now to support Toronto F.C. in the MLS, even though they may not be as high calibre. I’m certain the folks in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and Finland are all envious of the NHL as it is the top hockey league in the world, yet they still passionately support their local leagues. Folks in my wife’s hometown in England reverently support their division 2 soccer club, even though there are several Premiership sides playing a short drive away.

Further to the domestic league problem, we have lots of idiots with money. Example: Edmonton has an USL club a few years back. First off, the owners gave them an asinine name: Edmonton Aviators, as North American sports teams seem to have a marketing need to attach an arbitrary name to their franchises. Next, they base the club in Commonwealth Stadium which seats 65,000 people. Putting that in perspective, major European clubs like Arsenal don’t play in stadiums that big! So, you go to a live game and you have 8,000 in a cavernous 65,000 seater and you have a very hollow experience. Honestly, the folks who started the Aviators (which, surprise, folded before the completion of their inaugural season) must have inherited their cash as they couldn’t possibly had the business brains to earn the amount required for such an endeavour! We must abandon our “go big or go home” North American mindset.

Contrast the above scenario to what the owners of the new Toronto MLS franchise have done. First, the club name: Toronto F.C. – I love it! Next, build a 20,000 seater stadium. Awesome! Every game is sold out and the fans rival anything that I have witnessed in Europe (and I’ve been to a few games having lived overseas in England, Ireland and Slovakia). Lastly, secure a TV contract with the CBC – good move as you don’t even need cable to watch the games. All of this has also benefited the hype of David Beckham coming to the MLS this month. I wish that Edmonton would now follow suit in a bid to start Edmonton F.C.

Now that Toronto F.C. is up and running, we could do with one or two more domestic clubs in the MLS and to set up a farm system to these clubs. A way to make this even more feasible would be to strike a deal with a European or South American club to field a developmental/junior side in a Canadian city or two. This would be of mutual benefit as the foreign clubs would get a few more North American fans and Canadians would have a reasonable product on local pitches. All we need is the right business folks to strike up the deal. I’d be chuffed to hold season tickets to Aston Villa Edmonton F.C.! Staring from scratch would be a much more costly undertaking with less likelihood of success as you don’t have a well known name brand, the logistic of domestic travel would be enormous and investors wouldn’t be as willing with their financing of stadiums. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, but the backing of a major European side like Barcelona or Bayern Munich would make life a lot easier.

The last thing necessary to Canadian Soccer success is to have heroes. It breaks my heart to see the likes of Owen Hargraves, a born and bred Calgary boy playing his international soccer for England, the home of his parents. Here’s a young prodigy who was picked up by Bayern Munich as a teen, played on their first side and recently signed with Scum (a.k.a. Manchester United). On the one hand I can’t fault Owen for playing for England in terms of marketing himself, though I’m certain his Munich showcase and salary should be sufficient. There's a Canadian playing for Portugal's U20 side who opted for his parents nation because the Canadian National side didn't come sniffing around until after Portugal signed him (and he's playing club for Porto too!) .What bothers me is the likes of Owen, and multiple of other Canadian youths opting to play for the bigger soccer nations of their parents in pursuit of fame and fortune, and what that says about our sense of nationalism. I’m proud of my German and British/Irish heritage and played Rugby League for the Canadian National Team. Never would I have considered playing for Ireland, England or Scotland, regardless of their powerhouse standing in the Rugby world, over Canada… and, unlike Michael Owen who played for England yet never lived there, I have at least lived in both Ireland and England for brief periods of time. My own daughter is half English as that is where her Mom is from. Would I be upset if she chose England over Canada as the nation she opted for in the event that she was selected to play for a national side in any sport? Sentimentally, yes. Financially, that would be a factor to consider. Ultimately, I would hope that she put the land she lives in first.

Enough said.



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