Credibility: the key for Canada | Soccer | CBC Sports

SoccerCredibility: the key for Canada

Posted: Monday, February 27, 2012 | 03:37 PM

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Canada's coach Stephen Hart watches from the touchline during second half 2014 World Cup qualifying game action on Sept. 2, 2011. Hart has faced challenges this year when trying to piece together rosters for crucial FIFA friendlies. (Chris Young/Canadian Press) Canada's coach Stephen Hart watches from the touchline during second half 2014 World Cup qualifying game action on Sept. 2, 2011. Hart has faced challenges this year when trying to piece together rosters for crucial FIFA friendlies. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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It is no big deal. It is not the kind of story to make global headlines. But for anyone who follows Canadian soccer, it is deeply troubling and indicative of the problems facing the sport and its chances of international success.

It is no big deal. It is not the kind of story to make global headlines. But for anyone who follows Canadian soccer, it is deeply troubling and indicative of the problems facing the sport and its chances of international success.
 
FIFA 'dates' are earmarked for a reason. They are signposts designed to eliminate, as far as possible, the perennial club versus country tug of war over player availability. In theory, at least, they present clear separation between the club which pays his wages and the country he proudly represents.
 
It is not yet a perfect fit and likely never will be. While summer soccer makes sense on this continent the opposite is true is many other parts of the world. Major international tournaments take place in the summer but there is flexibility to slot individual games into the schedule across the calendar year.
 
Being good enough makes demands on a player's time and body. International recognition is an honour not to be ignored, but it comes at a cost. Extra games and additional travel inevitably take their toll which, over time, can have a substantial effect on his career.
 
This week coincides with the first FIFA date of 2012. For weeks international coaches across the globe have been out and about scouting their finest players and checking on emerging new talent. Those individuals have now been called together to represent their country.
 
Friendly internationals have no shortage of critics. The results are meaningless in terms of qualification for, or competing at, major competitions. Club managers are understandably concerned their players will return fatigued, or worse, injured. Senior internationals routinely suffer little niggles, forcing them to pull out and fans to think twice about spending their hard earned money on a game where the outcome is academic.
 
Late withdrawals are an irritant, but nothing more for international coaches. The men in charge simply call up replacements or decide they have sufficient numbers in camp for the job at hand. If necessary there are always others, eager to answer the call of their country.
 
Stephen Hart does not enjoy that luxury. The Head Coach of Canada has the unenviable task of assembling rosters based as much on geographic location and goodwill as rewarding individual consistency and excellence at club level.
 
Canada's latest international highlights the problem. A low key friendly against Armenia played on neutral territory in Cyprus would hardly capture the attention of the world's media. Nonetheless it is a game which should be an important stepping stone towards Canada's preparations for World Cup qualifying.
 
Hart, aware that his North American based players are in pre-season training, sensibly selected his squad from Canadians plying their trade in Europe. Or at least that was the plan until it was sabotaged by people with no respect for the job he is doing or the country he represents.
 
The Canadian coach ran into roadblocks at every turn. The message he received from some European clubs was loud, clear and discomforting: It's only Canada, and it's only a friendly. Hart's position is difficult enough - some would call it a thankless task - he does not need to deal with arrogance and disrespect swimming on top of a shallow talent pool.
 
Far from the co-operation he was hoping for, Hart received something approaching an inquisition. Some of his European counterparts demanded precise details of the match time, venue and travel arrangements in order to minimize disruption at their individual clubs.
 
Let us remind ourselves this is a FIFA date. Club coaches are mandated to release players to their national associations unless injury or illness prevents such discharge. I am certain Jurgen Klinsmann faced no such barriers when selecting his US roster to face Italy but Hart's Canada is clearly viewed in a less favourable light.
 
It shouldn't make a difference, but it does. An international is an international whether he's representing Brazil or Bhutan. The cachet of having a Brazilian international on a club roster far outweighs the inconvenience of freeing him to play for his country. The same cannot be said of his Bhutanese counterpart.
 
At the heart of the matter it is about respect and credibility, or a lack thereof. As a journalist formerly based in the hotbed of European soccer, I can tell you Canada is perceived to be irrelevant on the international stage. The Americans have accrued some standing in recent years but the Canadians have yet to move the needle.
 
Is it any wonder Stephen Hart faces brick walls when doing his diplomatic best to advance the national program? He is trying to form a nucleus of players who are good enough, technically and mentally, to handle the next stage on the road to Brazil 2014. A threadbare squad of 18 in Cyprus, including a 17 year old uncapped midfielder, does not fill me with optimism.
 
Ultimately it is all to do with image. Canada stands for many things across the world. Hockey, friendship, snow, beavers, maple syrup - take your pick of the stereotypes. Soccer is not on the list. Until it is, I fear Canada and success on the world stage will remain strangers.

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