Friday Wrap #26 – The trouble with soccer in Canada (and North America)

Pricing talent out of people

The Canadian Women’s National Soccer team crashed out of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in spectacular fashion this week — a 4-0 loss to host Australia. This loss stung but should be put into perspective. Australia was the much better side going into this match. The Matildas (Australia’s women’s team nickname) are a strong team — from captain Sam Kerr (just returning off a calf injury) to shot-stopper Mackenzie Arnold. The team goes from strength-to-strength. Hayley Raso scored twice, she plays for Real Madrid. Arnold plays for West Ham in the Women’s Super League (England). Mary Fowler plays for Manchester City in the WSL, Steph Catley for Arsenal, etc. Top flight clubs, top flight national team.

Canada is not a slouch. Christine Sinclair, Adriana Leon, Jordyn Huitema, Jessie Fleming, etc. Also top flight players, but the team has problems, and it’s not their fault. After the final whistle, Sinclair said that Canada has a problem in developing talent, which includes the lack of a Canadian women’s pro league. Canada and Haiti are the only two countries who qualified for this year’s World Cup who do not have domestic pro leagues for women. One is a failed nation that has gangs running the government, people fleeing to refugee camps, and many countries are looking at banding together some sort of a police force to help restore order — AGAIN! The other, is Canada.

I challenge that it is just the lack of a women’s domestic pro league here that is hampering the development of soccer talent — it is also greed and the pay-to-play way that the soccer development pyramid has evolved in Canada (and the US too.)

Canada’s soccer system has, in my opinion, two fundamental flaws: pay-to-play; and a lack of geographic protection/territory for clubs. Yes, Canada needs a domestic women’s pro league, mirroring that of the Canadian Premier League. But that is only part of the problem and not a fundamental flaw.

For pro soccer, there are options which Canadians have done very well at. There are top pro Canadian women’s players around the world playing top flight. It will be nice to have domestic pro competition when it launches, but the international opportunities are already there.

Canada’s grassroots soccer, where talent is discovered and starts up the pyramid, is flawed. Provincial associations are too powerful, as are regional district associations. The national governing body has no real power — the provincial associations drive the agenda.

The issue of pay-to-play, and the lack of boundaries, go hand in hand. Unlike hockey in Canada, there are no territorial boundaries for local clubs. Soccer players are free to go where ever to join a club. That sounds great right? No. Hockey has territories. If you live in Barrhaven, you will start in Nepean Minor Hockey. If you live in Leitrim, you are playing with Leitrim Minor Hockey. There is no poaching; you can’t sign up for a different club if your kid has friends in another club. Too bad.

The local club develops, and if you have talent, work ethic, skill, etc, then you will merit playing at higher levels. If not, you play locally and even competitive play happens from your local club.

Soccer in Canada has no territories. Poaching talent from clubs is common. Because of this, local clubs suffer because players have become commodities. Larger clubs, who poach players out of local clubs, offer the chance of more training, more games, more tournaments, all at the cost of more money from families.

Above is a quote by one of my favourite football players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, from GQ Italia magazine via the ESPN FC website. When he was playing for LA Galaxy in the MLS, this is what he paid for his kids’ football.

In Europe, South America, and many other regions, the system is much different. Youth join local clubs, talented youth are spotted and offered spots in academies and even pro club development streams. All this, without a financial burden to families of paying big yearly fees, tournament fees, this fee, that fee, and all the other fees. When a talented player is signed, there is usually a development fee paid to the starting club to help that organization develop more talent.

How does this impact the women’s national team? All the above. The lack of a women’s pro league means more competition internationally for top-flight spaces to play. Running in the pay-to-play model means that there are many talented youth that get shut out of excelling in higher levels because of the inability to pay. That lessens the base of where talent is developed from. And the lack of boundaries/territories and constant poaching by clubs within districts means local grassroots clubs are often unable to have enough players to offer certain levels of competition to grow beyond the foundations of the game.

It’s all connected. It’s all broken. And because of the amount of money involved for big clubs in regions, and certain paid staff earning six figures, it will not change anytime soon.

That Olympic Gold was great, too bad we won’t see much else for many years to come.