Sunday, July 4, 2010

Canadian soccer: Not making the grade

With another 2 day break until the semi-finals of the World Cup, it leaves me time to ponder about the state of soccer in Canada. For a country that boasts one of the worlds highest percentage of youths enrolled in soccer programs or leagues it defies logic as to why the Canadian national teams do not perform better on the world stage, especially at the senior men's level.

Many will point to the fact that Canada is not a "soccer nation" therefore leading to a lack of interest in the game or its development. However this is clearly not the case if one takes a look at ratings for the 2010 World Cup games here in Canada. CBC has reported as much as 120% jump in ratings between 9:30 am to 4pm time slot during the group stages when the games were shown live. This does not of course include the Internet site hits for the online streaming of the games, which a lot of people have used (including yours truly)when they are at work.

People have also argued the fact that although ratings are high, people who watch the games have no interest in Canadian soccer, but rather cheering for their birth nation or the one of their parents birth. Making Canada in effect a "satellite soccer nation" for other countries. The argument is highlighted by the great flag debate, where at any given time during a World Cup you can see a United Nations kaleidoscope of world flags before you even see a Canadian one. I agree that there should be more Canadian flags flying as a show of support for the nation. However there are two elements that the "Satellite soccer nation" theory fails to grasp. First Canada is simply not in the World Cup, it is hard to justify flying the Maple Leaf in support of a soccer team that failed miserably to qualify. Second it fails to understand that Canadians as a people are now made up of a large amount peoples from different nations around the globe, who bring their national passion for the game with them. It does not mean that naturalized citizens or first generation Canadians dislike Canada, in fact if Canadian soccer was better funded and better organized those Italian, Brazilian and English flags would change to Canadian ones in an instant.

In a real sense this is the issue with Canadian soccer, funding and organization at the national level. If you look at soccer funding based on a per capita income level Canada is one of the worst funded soccer associations. Most governments around the world fund their national programs at a decent rate, however the Canadian federal government barely has done so for the CSA (Canadian Soccer Association).

If you want an example of how funding a national program can change results don't look at the United States as we normally do, they have triple the population. We should look at Switzerland who have only 7 million people, but have the same per capita income as we do. The Swiss Football Federation in the early 90's made a shift in the way they would develop their football, they looked at better funding, and developing youth players to increase success in future results. They went to the Swiss government presenting the case that if they helped just a little bit, it would increase national unity and self esteem in a population that was increasingly becoming more diverse. The government agreed and began a modest funding program for the Swiss FA to develop a youth center to train them at an elite level. Nearly 20 years later the Swiss are producing a conveyor belt a young talent both at the men's and women's level, and are perennial World Cup qualifiers.

In comparison Canada has spent very little money on converting good recreational youth players into the elite national youth set up. It leads to what you are seeing now from the Canadian national side, a lack of young exciting players moving into the senior level and a now 24 year World Cup drought. This also ties into the lack of organizational thinking within the CSA.

Due to the fact that each province has its own soccer association there is a disconnect in what the technical standards should be in regards to developing players. Some provinces like Ontario, B.C and Alberta have higher standards in regards to developing elite level players, while other provinces lag behind in this regard. This is not to say that the other provinces are not producing quality players, but if you look at the recent roster of Canadian players taken on the South American tour just before the World Cup it is dominated by player from those the provinces named above.

In previous posts I have also pointed out the CSA's inability to keep some of its most talented players from playing for other nations, this is in part due to Canada's under achieving track record on the international level but it also in part to the lack of organization beyond the amateur level. Only now is CSA making a concerted effort to promote the professional level in Canada. Without the pro option in Canada many of the elite level players have left for European club teams and then eventually their national teams.

Money and better organization alone will not solve this issue, it will take a collective effort from the CSA, government, the provincial associations and fans of the game alike to make change for the national programs. If this happens we could be hearing "Oh Canada" in Rio four years from now.


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