Canadian soccer head Victor Montagliani sees bright future
CSA president says Canada in middle of managerial search to replace Stephen Hart
Coming off one of the national team's most humiliating defeats, Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani is surprisingly upbeat about the future.
Montagliani was in Honduras in October to see the men's squad crash out of World Cup qualifying via an 8-1 thrashing that cost highly regarded coach Stephen Hart his job.
Not only did the loss in San Pedro Sula slam the door on a promising qualifying campaign, it cost the men's team valuable credibility with Canadian fans.
The Canadian men went 4-3-2 in 2012, starting the year ranked 72nd in the world and finishing at No. 64.
But the only numbers that really stand out are eight and one.
"The 8-1 loss stings," said Montagliani. "It still stings.
"As I told my board [of directors], it's something that I don't think I ever want to experience again. Nobody does. But I think it's something we need to learn from.
"We've had other losses that were as big ... I'm not sure if we ever learned from it. And we need to learn from it, that the game of football doesn't necessarily teach you character, what it does is it reveals who has character."
A post-mortem into the failed qualifying campaign is close to completion.
"Upon review, there are some things that we can improve on and we will improve on," Montagliani said.
But he declined to provide details until the review is finished.
In January, Canada takes the first steps in distancing itself from that San Pedro Sula collapse when it plays friendlies south of the border against Denmark and the U.S.
And Montagliani promises the team will stay busy this year.
"The reality is it will be a young team and they need to get experience," he said.
With Hart gone and the search for a new manager continuing, the national team will be guided by a yet-to-be-named caretaker coach in the short term.
Finding the right man
Montagliani acknowledges that finding the right man to succeed Hart is crucial for the national team's future. But he rejects the notion that the Canadian men's program remains in the doldrums in the wake of the Honduras humiliation.
"I actually was quite surprised that the negativity lasted a very short time," he said in an interview. "And I think the reason is because the program did show significant amount of progress.
"Yes, unfortunately, the fall in the last game was from tremendous heights because of the actual result. But if you look at the teams that qualified for the Hex [the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF] other than Mexico, every other team had 10 or 11 points — like us.
"So we were the closest we've ever been. But I think it's not just because of the points, it's the progress the program has made in enlarging the pool of players.
"We were all obviously in shock at the [Honduras] result. There was obviously anger, starting with myself, initially. But I think [after] a lot of sober second thought ... I think people are sort of positive in the sense that they know what's coming up from our Olympic team and our U-20 team and some of the core we still have with our senior team, that actually we might have prepared ourselves for the next phase of getting into the Hex in 2016."
Montagliani also disagrees with those that argue that the team that came up short in World Cup qualifying represented Canada's best shot in recent years.
"It seems like every time we've been knocked out, everybody's always said this was our best chance," he countered. "The truth of the matter is if you look at football, it's about seizing the moment. There's been teams that have gone into there Hex with much less talent that we do, to start with.
"So it's not just a question of talent."
Montagliani points to the Canadian under-23 side that lost 3-1 to eventual winner Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF championship in March.
"There's a core group of players there that are playing on professional teams," he said. "The U-20 group that [coach Nick] Dasovic has currently, it's a very good group of players.
"If you transcend their ages and you look at three, fours years down the road, those players are going to be from 22 to 25 years old. And there will be some players obviously that were on the senior team who will be back.
"So it's not a matter of it was our best chance. I actually think our best chance is the one moving forward. Because if we do what we need to do from a development standard, we're going to provide more players an opportunity to get to the first team."
But Canadian fans looking to the elite pro ranks in England are reminded of how some see Canada when it comes to soccer.
Jonathan de Guzman, younger brother to Canadian international, plays midfield for Swansea City in the Premier League. Striker David (Junior) Hoilett wears Queens Park Rangers colours. And Stoke City goalie Asmir Begovic, a former Canadian under-20 starter, now wears the colours of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
They have put Canada in their rear-view mirror, it seems.
On the plus side, classy midfielder Atiba Hutchinson was voted Canadian male player of the year after battling back from injuries to lead PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
In MLS, the Vancouver Whitecaps became the first Canadian team to make the playoffs. Toronto FC, despite making the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, set a record of another sort with a nine-game losing streak to open the MLS season before finishing with a league-worst 5-21-8 record.
Montagliani's confidence is based on structural changes at CSA, plus the growth of the game in Canada.
"We divided what I call church and state ... operations and governance," he said.
The goal was to ensure the association's professional staff weren't handcuffed, as happened in the past, and to change the makeup of the board to reduce the competing pulls of provincial representation.
"The difference has been that no longer are the issues around the table coming from a sort of provincial look," Montagliani said. "Everything is dealt with and discussed and decided from a national perspective and a national objective."
"For too long, in this country, it was the tail wagging the dog rather than the other way around," he added. "And I think, obviously, there's an important place for our provincial associations because they do a lot of the work that needs to be done. But I also think by separating how we do things, it gives a national body an opportunity to really lead — and work in conjunction with the provinces rather than kind of the other way around."
The New Year represents the start of a "new strategic planning cycle."
Canadian soccer fans may groan at that. Over the years, the CSA has a history of coming up with a string of blueprints that have ultimately failed.
But Montagliani insists this one will be different, given the plan to support technical director Tony Fonseca.
"Unlike we've done in the past where we've hired technical directors and then not really empowered them," Montagliani said. "For the first time, I can tell you that it's a strategic plan that will be a football-specific strategic plan.
"If you've looked at the ones we've done in the past, they've been more — with all due respect — bureaucratic, governmental I guess is the word. And that's fine. But what I find with a lot of the strategic plans is sometimes it's hard to tell which sport they're actually doing it for.
"Whereas the pillars of our strategic plan will actually be the technical vision of our technical director and our women's national team coach on the women's side."
The final document will not be completed until the late fall of 2013, however, as it has to go through a consultation process with its membership, pro clubs and others.
The association will stick to that 2014-18 football vision, Montagliani promises.
"Honestly you're either in or you're out at some point," he said. "We do consultation by death sometimes in this country. At some point people have to make decisions and I think we're ready to make those decisions."
Fonseca has already laid out his plan for the next Olympic cycle at the recent board meeting.
"That is a very important part of our vision going forward," said Montagliani.
That's because not only is the under-23 team a stepping stone to the senior side, it is also eligible for funding through the Own The Podium program.
In 2013, Canada's under-17 and under-20 men's teams will both try to qualify for FIFA world championships.
On the club level, Montagliani says a goal is to build up the semi-pro ranks underneath the three MLS franchises with FC Edmonton and the NASL's new Ottawa team leading the way, as well as the CSL and other regional leagues.
"Too often, the CSA has sanctioned semi-pro or pro soccer, but we've never governed it. And governing and sanctioning are too distinct things," he said. "So I think we need to govern the game in the best interest of Canadian soccer at all levels of professional soccer so that the work that you do at the grassroots and high-performance level has room to grow.
"Right now there's seems to be a ceiling where there's not too many opportunities for our players to go into professional areas."
There has been progress.
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi says in B.C., young talent is now funnelled through his team's academy. In the past, parents were faced with a confusing choice of provincial and club teams.
Montagliani sees the opportunity for Canadian success in the CONCACAF region, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
"I really think to get to the next level is not a question of talent, it's a question of psychologically being ready to push past that barrier," Montagliani said.
"I mean, the only country I think in CONCACAF that has tremendous amount of talent that doesn't worry about who they put on the pitch is Mexico. Outside of Mexico it's pretty much even-steven."