The Current

Cancelled friendlies and striking players: How Canada is fumbling its 2022 World Cup preparation

Canada's men's soccer team is embroiled in controversy. They were forced to cancel a game with Iran after protests, and the players refused to play against Panama on Sunday due to a dispute over pay and benefits.

Canada Soccer fiasco 'a black eye on the sport,' says former goalkeeper

Canada's men's soccer team were forced to cancel a game with Iran after protests; and the players refused to play against Panama on Sunday due to a dispute over pay and benefits. For some, it's soured what has been a historic year for Canadian soccer. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Story Transcript

From a historic Olympic gold medal for the women's team to the men's team's first FIFA World Cup qualification in decades, the past year was a memorable one for Canadian Soccer. 

But recent game cancellations, including one by striking players, are straining the goodwill and fanfare built up by the association.

"It disappoints me to no end," former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest told The Current's Matt Galloway. "I don't like to see it because we're coming off the back of, really, a golden generation of men and women that we should be celebrating."

It has been a controversial couple of months for Canadian soccer. A scheduled friendly match with Iran's men's team in Vancouver on June 5 was cancelled following criticism and political pressure from within Canada.

Another friendly was scheduled in its place with Panama's men's team — but that was abruptly called off hours before kick-off Sunday due to a dispute over payment and benefits between the male players and the Canada Soccer Association.

"We want to work together with our organization, but the relationship has been strained for years," the Canadian men's team players said in an open letter originally tweeted by TSN's Rick Westhead. 

Soccer reporter John Molinaro said the payment issue started in March with contract negotiations between the players and the CSA — and the CSA's delayed response. 

The men's team's letter, said "due to executives delaying the process and taking vacations ... Canada Soccer waited until the evening of June 2nd to present an archaic offer."

"[It] really showed a lack of foresight, I think, from both sides. I mean, they really should have been negotiating far sooner than March," he told Galloway.

On top of better World Cup compensation, the men's team also said they wanted more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization's leadership, and a "comprehensive friends and family package" for the 2022 World Cup.

Although he supports the grievances the players have, Forrest said there should've been better communication between the two parties prior to the June 5 friendly.

He said that if the CSA had properly communicated to the players the details of commercial assets — such as the broadcast rights for the men's and women's teams — there would've had a better understanding that "there is no golden egg TV contract"

"This is still Canada. We have barriers. We have difficulties in many areas."

Pay equity

One of those barriers is felt heavily by Canada's women's team. Despite their recent successes — which include qualification for every Women's World Cup between 1995 and 2019 — there's still no professional women's league in Canada. 

Women's team players are also not given the same luxuries as their male counterparts, such as flying business class to away games.

"As women in this country playing for a national side, we don't have the luxury of those things just being provided to us," said former Canadian women's national team player Amy Walsh.

"We have to fight and claw for everything."

That's why Walsh believes it's "a good first step" for the men's players to include demands for the betterment of the women's game in their Dear Canada letter, such as the development of a women's domestic league and the same "percentage of prize money earned at our respective FIFA World Cups."

But according to Molinaro, the women's team may not see eye to eye with some of the men's team's demands.

"With regards to FIFA prize money, [they said] if the men are getting 40 per cent of the prize money from their World Cup, then they're arguing that the women should also get 40 per cent of the prize money from the FIFA Women's World Cup," he said.

"The problem with that is that the men's World Cup … prize money is more substantial [than] on the women's side."

So if we're talking about equal percentages, there's no pay equity in that. There's no way that is even close to being equal.-Amy Walsh

Walsh said the difference between the two prize pools is currently millions of dollars.

She pointed out that FIFA has given the 2022 men's World Cup a prize pool of $440 million, and they've only proposed doubling the women's prize money to $60 million for the 2023 Women's World Cup.

"So if we're talking about equal percentages, there's no pay equity in that. There's no way that is even close to being equal."

In response to the Canadian men's team's letter, the women's team's players released their own open letter clarifying that they don't 'view equal FIFA percentages as between our respective teams as equal pay.' (Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images)

In response to the men's players' letter, the women's team's players released their own open letter saying they are "happy" to hear the men's players calling for an equitable pay structure — but clarified that they don't "view equal FIFA percentages between our respective teams as equal pay."

"We have been clear throughout these discussions (and before) that we are seeking an agreement with Canada Soccer that will provide equal pay to members of our team relative to the Men's National Team," the letter said. "The Women's National Team will not accept an agreement that does not offer equal pay."

Walsh believes the men's team could've done a better job avoiding this reaction.

"I think what could be better is if the men and the women were in lockstep and were presenting their demands jointly to the CSA," she said. "I think it would be a much more powerful stance and a much more effective way to communicate and leverage these demands."

For now, Forrest believes the onus is on the men's team players to clarify their stance on pay equity.

"Until they do that, we're going to see the two groups start to clash, and we can't have us clashing with the CSA … separately, as men and women. We need to do that together," he said.

Fans celebrate Canada’s win over Jamaica on March 27, which confirmed the men's team's place in the 2022 World Cup. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

'A black eye on the sport'

The male players have since resumed training and are expected to play their CONCACAF Nations League opener against Curaçao on Thursday.

Still, Forrest is concerned the previous match cancellations, which have resulted in tens of thousands of tickets being refunded, have left "a black eye on the sport" among new fans.

"This team has done so much — as well as our women's team — to build up a fan base that is … large, and we don't want to disappoint those fans and those supporters," he said. "And collectively, we've done that to the fans and the supporters."

"We can't afford that in Canada. We've got to take all the advantages and positives that we can get."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Kate Cornick, Brianna Gosse, Paul MacInnis and Cathy Simon.

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