On Sunday, when the Canadian men’s national team refused to play a friendly against Panama over multiple concerns with Canada Soccer including World Cup bonus payout, Mike Sweeney could only shake his head.
“Been there, done that,” said Sweeney.
The former men’s national team defender was quickly transported back to a hotel room near Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton in July 1993.
The Canadian men’s national team were then just days away from a World Cup qualification inter-confederation play-off against Australia that was one of the most important games in team history. But what Sweeney, still one of Canada’s most-capped players, remembers is an urgent meeting with the Canada Soccer Association (CSA) in the days leading up to the game. Unsatisfied with the game and qualification fees they were set to receive should they qualify for the 1994 World Cup, they wanted to address and resolve the issue before the two-legged series so they could compete free of distractions.
But the CSA executives had delayed meetings multiple times. The ones that eventually occurred were panic-filled, and last-minute.
“It was actually very poor planning by the CSA to wait until the 12th hour, not even the 11th hour,” Sweeney said of the discussions in 1993.
Nearly 30 years later, the men’s team’s continuing concerns about their contracts and payouts show how little has changed. They agreed to resume training on Monday in the hopes that the CSA will work with them on a resolution moving forward, and all signs point to their scheduled Nations League match against Curacao on Thursday going ahead. But their list of demands has not been met.
For those who have not seen the letter written by the Canadian men’s national team and released to the media, and ahead of a Canada Soccer press conference set to begin soon, here it is in full: #CanMNT pic.twitter.com/RU64uF6pEg
— Joshua Kloke (@joshuakloke) June 6, 2022
For Sweeney and other Canadian men’s national team stars of the past, the players’ public fight isn’t surprising; rather, it’s been a long time coming.
Among the demands from current Canadian players, one is especially revealing: “former players from the men’s, women’s and para team integrated into leadership positions within Canada Soccer Board & Organization.”
It’s hard not to see why this demand is listed. Canada Soccer’s executive and board is bereft of people with experience playing internationally for Canada and of those who possess in-depth understanding of the conditions of those Canadian players.
Nick Bontis is the president of the CSA. He was elected in 2020 after serving as the vice-president from 2017 to 2020. Bontis previously served on Canada Soccer’s board of directors and was appointed co-chair of the Sport Organizing Committee for Men’s and Women’s Soccer at the 2015 Pan American Games.
On the landing page of his own website, Bontis lists himself as a “keynote speaker, strategy expert and tenured professor.”
As an associate professor of strategic management at McMaster University in Hamilton, Bontis earned a salary of $230,769 (CAD) in 2021 according to public records That Bontis serves this role, as well as that of his speaking and consultation work, in addition to what should be a demanding (yet unpaid) position within Canada Soccer was questioned by multiple people during the reporting for this story.
His role as President of Canada Soccer is not listed on the landing page of his website, though it is listed towards the bottom of the “About Nick” section. In terms of playing experience, it appears the highest level of soccer he played was for the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.
The Vice-President of Canada Soccer is former Canadian track and field Olympian Charmaine Crooks.
Canada Soccer’s Board of Directors comprises 12 people, but the only person on the board with any experience playing for a Canadian national team is Brittany Baxter, who is sixth all-time in caps for the women’s national team with 132 appearances (Canada Soccer regulations stipulate that one former national team player be on the board). The remaining 11 board members are a mix of former directors of provincial soccer associations, sports business professionals and administrators from other fields.
Canada Soccer’s general secretary position is currently vacant, with Earl Cochrane serving as deputy general secretary. Cochrane played soccer for Carleton University in Ottawa. He was the Canadian national team’s manager and director of communications for the Canada Soccer Association, before moving to DC United and then Toronto FC, working as manager of team operations, academy director and then interim general manager before returning to Canada Soccer as the deputy general secretary in 2013.
In terms of the current ability on the men’s and women’s national team, Canada has every right to consider the United States a comparable nation. But the makeup of the executive staff between the two federations could hardly be more different.
Cindy Parlow Cone is the President of the USSF and earned 158 senior team caps as a player. Like Bontis, her position is unpaid, but unlike Bontis, her other gig is still in the soccer world, as director of North Carolina FC youth.
Earnie Stewart, earned 101 caps with the US men’s national team and is now the federation’s sporting director (a position which does not exist at Canada Soccer).
The US men’s national team general manager is Brian McBride, who has 95 caps and an extensive professional playing resume in the US and abroad. The women’s team general manager is Kate Markgraf, who earned 201 senior team caps as a player in addition to club experience across multiple US leagues.
Granted, these USSF appointments are relatively recent, and the federation operating budget is larger than Canada Soccer’s. But the idea behind them has led to a clear power structure and, in theory, a greater understanding on both sides of the issues that concern current players.
“Right away with the players, there’s a respect, because they’ve been in the shoes that the players are in,” said Jim Brennan, who earned 49 caps with the men’s national team, and cites former Bayern Munich star Oliver Kahn now serving as CEO at the club as another example of why the approach works. “You can sit down, you can talk shop, players are comfortable. Because they’ve been there, they understand the game. Now, you have a (Canada Soccer board) where nobody’s been involved in professional football and there’s a lack of trust. And I think that could change if the players actually feel comfortable.”
In February, Canada Soccer opened a call for nominations for its board of directors. They called for candidates with “expertise in the areas of finance, risk management, director (sic) of publicly traded/private company, sport governance, commercialization and revenue generation, and traditional and social media…although all with a strong interest in soccer in Canada should consider submitting.”
One complaint The Athletic heard in the reporting for this story is how the board positions on Canada Soccer are volunteer positions. Questions from former players about whether the federation will encounter difficulty attracting people who are willing to invest the proper amount of time and effort persist.
Davide Xausa and his former Canada teammate Garret Kusch were en route to Canada’s game against Panama when they received word that it had been canceled.
“It instantly brought me back to when I was playing,” said Kusch. “I remember having similar discussions, asking, ‘Should we actually get on the field?’”
At the 2000 Gold Cup, Xausa, Kusch and Canada went on an unprecedented run, winning the tournament for the first and to date only time. But before a group stage game, it became clear to the players that there was not a clear plan for the prize money from possibly winning the tournament and from qualifying for the Confederations Cup. Players refused to train, and demanded then-COO of Canada Soccer Kevan Pipe flies to Los Angeles.
“It was no different from what you’re seeing now,” said Xausa. “We just wanted to make sure that there was some compensation there for us, and then setting up something for this achievement going forward.”
As the men’s team now stands on the precipice of a tremendous achievement, the relationship between them and the federation needs to be repaired, once again.
“I didn’t know this was on the back of their minds,” said former national team goalkeeper Craig Forrest of the national team’s current contract disputes. “I would have thought they would have had this locked in.”
The women’s national team is the current Olympic gold medalists. The men’s team is going to the next two World Cups. Together, they are driving the sport to newfound levels of popularity in Canada and it’s not unfounded that soccer could threaten hockey’s place atop the throne in terms of popularity.
But Xausa believes there is “probably a disconnect” between the men’s team and “from who’s sitting on that board.”
“Why would that conversation have not been led by the CSA earlier?” asked Xausa. “Why would you want to have dissension in the ranks of the players of the profile we have today? We’re on a huge uptick right now. Why would you want to put Canadian soccer in this type of position?”
“Are (Executives and board members at the CSA) doing what’s best for the game and best for the future of the game in Canada?” added Kusch. “Part of that involves looking at things like these contracts and player compensation.”
Kusch argues that proper player compensation is an integral component of the future of the game in Canada, and to ensure the best athletes are not lost to other sports.
Every former player The Athletic spoke to for this story agreed that having more former players involved at the executive or board level would not only have likely improved the communication between them and the CSA, but could also do so moving forward.
“It would build trust,” said Forrest. “(Men’s national team players) are basically concentrating on their club careers. They come back and all they see is big numbers on TV, big crowds, and they ask, ‘Where’s the money? Why aren’t we leveraging this?’ But maybe they don’t quite understand the landscape in Canada and the battle in the business to try to get the games on TV. It needs to be explained.”
Forrest said if the men’s team has a lack of trust in Canada Soccer right now, as he understands it.
“Nobody seems to be standing up,” said Forrest.
Should Canada Soccer add more executives with experience in the sport, they will have a few interesting potential candidates.
John Catliff, who was once the men’s national team’s leading goal scorer, went on to work as a vice president at sportswear manufacturer Helly Hansen. Catliff made an unscheduled appearance on CBC’s BC Today radio program on Monday, detailing how the men’s team ahead of the 1986 World Cup went through similar difficulties that this team is going through, outlining a “lack of respect and lack of vision and leadership on the part of our association.”
“I think if you were to poll 30 players from that era, over 90 percent of them would agree with me, wholeheartedly,” Catliff said.
A few former players pointed to Paul Peschisolido, who made 53 appearances for the national team as an immensely talented forward and now works as an agent in England.
“(Canada Soccer) should be identifying people and asking ‘What are our gaps on the board?’” said Xausa.
Ultimately, seeing more former player involvement in Canada Soccer is just one of the demands the men’s team has. But both former and current players appear to agree: change in Canada Soccer is overdue.
“The game has grown up in the country,” said Xausa, “I don’t think that the association seems to have grown up as well.”
(Photo: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)