99 Friendship Episode 12

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · September 26th, 2016 · No comments

As Canada’s women’s U-17s get revved up for the World Cup later this week in Jordan, Carolyn and I were sitting on tenterhooks. Waiting, waiting. Waiting for the Canadian Soccer Association to release its roster, the 21 young ladies who would brave the hostility of the Middle East to represent Canada in front of the world. Finally, on Thursday morning, they released the list, including happy surprises like Deanne Rose and Jordyn Huitema, and incidentally blessing our fledgling podcast with a positive surfeit of #content.

I think we spend maybe five minutes discussing the roster as such?

Don’t worry, this is still a healthy Women’s U-17 World Cup preview, as we look forward to such things as the games being on television and losing to Venezuela again. We also survive both Carolyn and my computers exploding in totally separate ways during the same recording, with no ill effect beyond the fact that Carolyn spends two-thirds of this episode sounding like an old-timey radio.

(Curling news is naturally constricted but we find time to throw a shout-out to Alberta’s own Team Brandon Bottscher, who in the time since we recorded this episode has also beaten Team Something Epping at the Saskatoon cleaning cashspiel. Alberta best curling.)

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter! If you don’t, no rosters for you.

A Canadian Pro/Rel Manifesto

By Benjamin Massey · September 21st, 2016 · 5 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

Reports of a coming Canadian Premier League have not died. The usual reporters, Duane Rollins and Anthony Totera, continue to tease us with target dates and rumoured plans. Peripheral feelers and exploratory movements have reached even the least connected members of the soccer community. The Canadian Soccer Association has still not made any announcement, but the winking and nudging and “just you waits” are only intensifying. There’s smoke, and while that does not necessarily indicate fire, somebody is trying to start one.

As far as a fan can tell, nothing is set in stone. So perhaps the time is right for us to say what sort of league we want. The true Canadian fan has been desperate for something, anything he could call his own, and we still are, and would support our domestic league even if it was Major League Soccer with a maple leaf tattooed on its face. However, just because our standards may be low and our expectations not much higher does not mean that we don’t have ambitions. A Canadian soccer league would, to a great extent, be an end in itself, but it would also be a means to other ends, and we should try to promote those while plans can still be changed.

One of those ends is making Canada, as surely as it is a hockey country, a soccer country. Eight teams in eight major metropolitan centres would be great for those in the hearts of big cities, but would still leave the majority of our landmass and a large chunk of our population with teams you could only call “their own” in very generous terms. What makes us a hockey nation is not seven NHL franchises but the hundreds of senior, major junior, and junior “A” teams, based in cities as large as Toronto and podunk towns of a thousand people, that bring the sport to the masses. Even the semi-rural family, the suburb-dweller, the oil patch kid, doesn’t have far to go if he wants to watch quality hockey. Much of the country enjoys the same access to curling, or Canadian football, and if you ever wonder why those sports command so much attention despite seeming so passé in the big city, think about that.

Alone, a Canadian Premier League alone could never imitate that. Only one thing could: promotion and relegation.

Simply saying those three words in North America provokes an instantaneous, tribal response. Many demand it with the fervour of the fundamentalist. Others decry it as foreign, impractical, a cancer that could never exist and we’re better off without. North America has franchises bound to leagues. Owners would never accept it. How could you get investors if that investment might go up in smoke with one bad year? It’s mad, it’s terrible, it could and should never happen.

That’s wrong. Promotion and relegation does not need to be an immediate and extreme load on the country’s back. Here is my view, addressed to the prospective owner, of what it could be.

Protecting your investment

Nobody is saying that you should get relegated tomorrow. We’re not insane. You, the founding franchiser, are going to plow a lot of money into getting this league started. Even in the best case the league’s very survival will be in doubt for several years. If at least one team doesn’t fold outright it’ll be a miracle. A malleable structure sending some $20-million-a-year subsidizer to League1 Ontario for 2019 is a terrible idea and everyone knows it. Even if we were that extreme, the infrastructure and lower divisions do not exist. The Victoria Vistas get relegated from the CanPL; where the heck are they gonna play?

We don’t need promotion and relegation in year one, or year three, or year five. We need a clear roadmap of how we’re going to get there. You can only accept promotion and relegation after fifteen seasons, provided the Premier League has sixteen teams and there are semi-pro leagues in every province? That sounds amazing! But write it down and work towards it.

In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be relegated at all. You’re spending a lot of money and you want your investment to be protected. Okay. There are ways to promote and relegate teams other than “three up, three down” every year. Both the Argentine Premier Division and Mexico’s Liga MX, the best and most successful soccer league in North America, use a “coefficient” system that relegates teams for sustained incompetence rather than one bad season. The first year of the system could be promotion only: bringing in four less-developed teams to fight your established squads for three relegation places would give you an automatic advantage. Minimum stadium standards, like those used by almost every league in the world, will make sure you don’t get knocked out by some podunk outfit playing Thursday afternoons at a city park. For greater security, institute a playoff between the teams in the Premier League’s relegation places and the lower divisions’ promotion places, so we make sure that only the deserving get to the big time.

Remember, no promotion/relegation advocate has a problem with your team staying in the top division indefinitely. It’s about adding a competitive element to the bottom of the table, and clubs being free to rise as far as their talent and resources can take them. Any promotion/relegation system has to be fair, but “fair” applies to you, the owner, as well.

Making that investment work

Nothing about pro/rel prevents financial responsibility. American opponents regularly assert that promotion and relegation is a naturally reckless system but they are conflating the all-round money madness of European and South American soccer with one element of its system. Teams in no danger of relegation can spend like lunatics and suffer for it; ask the late-’90s NHL. Of course, a team that gets relegated takes a financial hit every time, there’s no way around that, but the measures you may already be taking for fiscal stability can work here.

By all accounts the Canadian Premier League will pursue revenue sharing and cost certainty in the form of a salary cap anyway. Making this work with promotion and relegation is as easy as wanting to. If a cap team in the CanPL gets relegated to the PLSQ, it’s perfectly reasonable for the rules to “grandfather” the newly-arrived club into the PLSQ’s lower salary structure. Work out the details, that’s all they are. The PLSQ team that gets promoted in their place will want to spend more and keep their new position, but a salary cap will keep them from pulling a Gretna. Cost certainty and pro/rel can, in fact should, walk hand in hand.

The other side to relegation is that it frees you from undercapitalized, uncompetitive teams facing either new ownership or bankruptcy. The North American Soccer League spent two years keeping the Atlanta Silverbacks afloat on a shoestring for pride’s sake. Atlanta was a decent market with a good history and a solid soccer-specific stadium, but with MLS coming they couldn’t find a buyer willing to commit to an NASL level of expenditure. The Silverbacks should really have been allowed to fall to their natural level, and without promotion and relegation that becomes a whim of ownership rather than a Darwinian evolution (see San Antonio). It cost the more solid NASL owners both prestige and hard cash.

In Europe, when a team goes bankrupt or misses payments, it is automatically deducted so many points that relegation is almost inevitable. In a franchise system these teams would be near-certain bankrupts but with the lower costs and lesser pressure of a lower division, they can sometimes keep mostly afloat long enough to reorganize into a healthier model as Portsmouth is currently doing. That club is owned by a supporters’ trust that could never possibly have raised the required capital if Pompey was at the basement of a franchise-based Premier League, with all the expenditure and paper-only “value” that implies; the team would have just died. Obviously teams do go bankrupt in a pro/rel system, it’s not a panacea, but it is another way to handle the trouble one broke owner can put your league in.

Remember, more soccer is good for you. You want every sort of fan you can get, of course, but the sort who makes you the most money is the season-tickets-every-year new-kit-every-two merchandise-buying beer-swilling sponsor-supporting diehard. They come back year after year, plow way more of their disposable income than would be considered responsible into your pocket, and feel personally involved in the success of your company. Many of them feel so deeply about your corporate success that they will stand up and sing songs about how terrific your company is; they are literally paying you to use them in your marketing. Subject to pretty modest precautions like making sure the loud ones get their own section and preventing them punching babies or burning the stadium down, they bring other fans in the door. This is a good deal for you.

These fans also don’t come from nowhere. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “I am going to lose my mind for soccer,” or hockey, or football, or ringette, or any other sport. That sort of fanaticism is something that builds with exposure to the sport. It is why, for so long, soccer supporters were such a niche in the United States and suddenly were everywhere: a certain critical mass had to develop, and then things took off.

Sure, you and your fellow franchisers might be able to get domestic soccer that critical mass almost singlehanded, but wouldn’t you rather other people helped pay for it? A healthier lower division, such as is promoted by the competitiveness of promotion and relegation, is in your interest. In principle you might lose a meaningful number of fans to local, lower-division rivals, but in practice this hardly seems to happen. You only need look at the rise and fall of attendances as teams go up and down the divisions to see this: many fans want to see their local side, many fans want to see the best, and sometimes those two groups overlap. Sports fandom is not zero-sum. League1 Ontario fans still go to Toronto FC games, and at every level, atmosphere attracts atmosphere.

And if a new first-division team appears in your city, within walking distance of your stadium? Around the world those games are the most intensely-fought and lucrative of all. If you can’t make money off passionate clashes between neighbours and rivals, what are you even doing in this business?

More soccer is also good for you on the field. One of the best-established ways to train a young player is to send him on loan so he can get experience playing meaningful games at a level that suits him. At risk of stating the obvious, this requires a team to borrow him from you. Except in rare cases it’ll be a lower-division team for the also-obvious reason that if he was good enough for the first division the kid would be playing for you in it. There needs to be multiple options; you don’t want to be stuck because your only choice doesn’t need help at that position. Preferably the team will also be nearby, in case you need the kid back, and run by staff you know and trust. Heck, you probably even need successful teams at multiple levels, to accommodate players at different stages of development. That’s a long list of requirements and it takes a very healthy lower-division pyramid to accommodate them all. The United States does not have that. Bring in promotion and relegation, give lower-division teams that boost, and Canada could.

That’s an unquantifiable benefit, of course. But another reason you should want healthy lower divisions is that, if it turns out that kid isn’t good enough for you after all, you can sell him to that lower-division team that liked him so much last time. Right now, unless you’re Miami FC, there’s not much point in the NASL paying cash on the barrel for an MLS reject: the MLSer will just be released in two months anyway and they can get him for free. If that NASL team was angling for promotion, or for that matter if an MLS team was battling relegation, matters might look a little different, and you make money.

Finally, ask yourself what would promotion and relegation cost you? So long as you stay up – and as we said a few paragraphs ago, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – very little. In ten or fifteen years or whatever, when the league reaches the point of stability where promotion and relegation are introduced, you will lose out on sweet franchise fees with every expansion. On the other hand, if you’re able to charge new investors big money then pretty-much-by-definition your business will be in good financial shape, and you will also be able to command a premium for the franchise fees in the years before promotion and relegation. “Buy in now or start from the bottom” is a decent pitch. Besides, franchise fees are a finite resource. Eventually your league will get as big as it can. They’re a crutch, not a structural revenue source.

Other than that, it’s hard to see how it’ll cost you a dime. A rival gets relegated? Given the probability that the new league will be spread across this huge country, it’s much more likely that new geographic rivals will appear. Travel costs are going to be a bastard whether you’re going from Toronto to Edmonton or Toronto to Sherwood Park. Minimum facility standards, common around the world, will save you from road games where friends and family pay a buck each to watch your $5-million roster. You may want to introduce parachute payments for relegated teams, and modest stadium subsidies for teams being promoted would be a good idea, but weren’t we just talking about revenue sharing? This is the same thing by other means, the rich giving a certain proportion of their revenue to benefit the poor for the benefit of all. The total amount of money you pay out doesn’t need to change.

And if it goes wrong?

Of course, there’s every chance that you hire the wrong guy, he signs the wrong players, blows through your money like a politician in election week, and in spite of all protections you get relegated. I’m sorry. There’s also every chance that you sell all your capital to buy Bre-X stock and wind up fishing for change on Granville and Nelson. We can give you a sporting chance, we can shield you from ordinary bad luck, so that one comes down to “don’t make stupid decisions.” If you can’t handle that as a condition, maybe capitalism isn’t for you.

99 Friendship Episode 11

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · September 19th, 2016 · No comments

Increasingly, 99 Friendship is becoming less of a women’s soccer podcast and more of a sports-Carolyn-and-Ben-both-like,-of-which-women’s-soccer-is-a-prominent-example podcast. This particular week we were rather painted into a corner: it was an international break across the woso world, meaning that the world’s top clubs had the weekend off as their players were off at European Championship qualifiers or glamorous friendlies. Except for Canada, who in their proud tradition have failed to capitalize on their post-Olympic momentum by scheduling absolutely anything whatsoever. Plus Jessie Fleming was hurt. There are only so many ways we can read NCAA box scores and make it sound interesting so yeah, we hit the curling hard this episode, and you gonna like it because we combine both Cheryl Bernard jokes and Cathy Overton-Clapham jokes in one millennial-friendly package!

Meanwhile, on the women’s soccer end, we continue to lament the Canadian Soccer Association’s unwillingness to release its youth camp rosters (just this morning, after we recorded, the Whitecaps Girls Elite Twitter posted a photo of its players at the airport on the way to the U-17 Women’s World Cup, and the CSA still hasn’t given out the team). It’s also the start of MWSL season in Vancouver, probably the best women’s soccer league in Canada west of Ontario, and I contribute a little rant on how uninterested they seem to be in attracting the fans that their quality deserves.

Go ahead and follow 99 Friendship on Twitter. You deserve it.

99 Friendship Episode 10

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · September 12th, 2016 · No comments

It’s the 99 Friendship Tenthennial Extravaganza!

Done watching Homestar Runner? Maybe you should go back. It wasn’t the most lively week. We recorded before Sunday night’s NWSL action, games where both Janine Beckie and Christine Sinclair troubled the highlight guy, and Jessie Fleming scored again because of course she does. Instead we dealt with the midweek games, where Sinclair missed a billion chances until she was given an absolutely free goal in garbage time, Beckie did not much, Fleming’s obligatory goal was lamer than usual, and most of the other professional Canadians didn’t play because they either tweaked their hamstrings or are stuck on the increasingly deranged Washington Spirit.

Plus, back by popular demand, we discuss some early-season curling which naturally degenerates into laughing at improbable mixed doubles pairings. In proud 99 Friendship tradition, our woso podcast was only about two-thirds woso despite cutting 30 minutes of Carolyn talking about ringette. (That is not an exaggeration.)

Thanks for listening to ten episodes! God knows how you’ve managed it. Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

Being Paid to Do Your Job

By Benjamin Massey · September 6th, 2016 · No comments

I assume you’ve heard of the latest CONCACAF match-fixing scandal. Either way, I’m gonna sum it up so grab a snack and hold on.

Yesterday, at a pre-World Cup qualifier press conference, the El Salvadoran men’s national team played audio proporting to be of Salvadoran businessman Ricardo Padilla offering the team, on behalf of Honduran soccer interests, up to $30 per player per minute to beat Canada, or at least lose close.

Naturally we laugh. We laugh at the idea that you should bribe players to win (“shit, maybe we should try that”). We laugh at some Honduran being so worried Canada might run up the score that he’s dialing his fixer. We laugh at the incompetence of the whole approach, from the piddling sums of money (a maximum $2700 per player, with unused substitutes not paid at all, won’t buy a lot of silence with careers at stake) to carelessly being recorded over the phone. We laugh because it’s funny, and because the Salvadoran team did the right thing and took the sting out.

But how serious is this? The Salvadorans, after all, would be bribed to do what they want to do anyway. How bad could that be? Is it even really match fixing?

We could ask the El Salvador men’s national team. They are coming off a recent match fixing scandal in 2013 that saw players banned for life, and thought seriously enough of this one to go to the press. Didn’t seem to be much conflict in their hearts, and they would have experience sorting those particular thoughts in their collective conscience.

But we could also ask the doyennes of match fixing, the gods of gambling, the crown princes of the crooked result. I am, of course, referring to the Victorian English.

You see, the El Salvadoran approach is not new. In the old days, gamblers really ruled the roost. Some sports, like single-wicket cricket, literally died out because match fixing was so prevalent. Gentlemen and common professionals could equally be snared, retribution for a double cross was physical and extreme, and the possibility of blackmail made a gambler’s life potentially far too easy.

And they’d have recognized this El Salvadoran situation at once. You see, bribing a player to win was a classic approach for exactly the reasons we’re not sure this is a proper scandal. The player will only do what he wanted to do anyway, and (being a Victorian Englishman and therefore not lavishly-paid for athletics) the money would be a nice bonus. There’s a good chance he’d accept. Even if he didn’t, the gambler might forward the bribe on anyway after the athlete won, counting on him not to actually hand the cash back.

Of course, at that point, the match fixer was in. The athlete had accepted money to influence a sporting result from, probably, a known bad egg. In this example, El Salvador bunkering to hold a 1-0 deficit is the sort of not-horrible-but-off complication that can arise.

There’d be witnesses. The athlete would be under that much more pressure, applied quite overtly, when the time came for the player to lose. The consequences were predictable.

Probably El Salvador wasn’t in any danger of being called upon to tank a Gold Cup qualifier any time soon. But they couldn’t know, and they behaved rightly. Match fixing can be funny but it is no joke.

99 Friendship Episode 9

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · September 5th, 2016 · No comments

A loud week in broso and a quiet one in woso. And we’re not going to talk about the broso, because ours is a happy, laughter-filled podcast and analyzing the lads failing to hold on at San Pedro Sula yet again would disgrace even the sarcastic friendship of our title.

But oh boy we have to plunge deep into the #content mines for this one. We flush out such obscure trivia questions as the pentathlon and jazz careers of former WNT central defenders. Around this we work in some discussion of what was another good week for Canadian goalscorers in club action, and a bad week for Kadeisha Buchanan defensively, not that she’s likely to be bothered because it was just Ohio State and she only seems dimly aware she’s a defender at all in these games.

Also I had SARS! If I seem even ramblier and more senile than usual, you know why.

Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

By Benjamin Massey · September 3rd, 2016 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Paul Giamou/Canadian Soccer Association

Despite our latest 2-1 loss in Honduras it’s not mathematically impossible for the Canadian men’s national team to qualify for the World Cup; just the regular kind.

To advance we have to beat El Salvador at BC Place on Tuesday (reasonable), and Mexico needs to simultaneously annihilate Honduras at the Azteca. Canada is currently three points behind Honduras for the vital second place in our group; worse, our goal difference is five behind theirs. We seem constitutionally incapable of scoring more than once and would need at least a 5-0 Mexico victory*. In 1980 Mexico beat Honduras 5-1, and if you go way back to 1935 Mexico scored an 8-2 win in a prehistory when Honduras lost by a converted touchdown to pretty much everybody[1]. Mexico’s already through but when you’re taking on a rival for the Azteca crowd, pride actually counts quite a bit. Not “five goals” though.

In games like this even the balanced mind becomes bipolar. On the one hand, there is the urge to resist defeatism. The odds of Canada advancing with a win are one in a million, but that’s a damned sign better than the odds if Canada doesn’t win, so give ‘er gusto. Roar the boys on to a victory that, to any true fan, would be worth it for its own sake anyway. Those of us who were in Edmonton to see an already-eliminated Canada play Mexico in 2008 won’t soon forget that game as, with nothing to play for, Dale Mitchell’s squad played like it was the World Cup itself and won a glorious 2-2 draw. Just because a difficult job will have no larger purpose doesn’t mean you don’t have to give it your all. What were we just saying about Mexico? Pride counts; the BC Place crowd isn’t as intimidating as the Azteca’s but it’s still worth effort.

On the other hand, we’re done and everyone knows it. Even if that one-in-a-million chance came through we’d advance through no fault of our own. We could try to fool ourselves, like the lottery winner who says he must somehow have deserved it, but deep down we’ll know. So we’re searching for someone to blame, and by “searching” I mean we already know exactly who to blame because it’s always the head coach.

What sin is Benito Floro innocent of? Nepotism (his son, Antonio, is an assistant with the first team and led us through a disappointing Pan-Ams)? Arrogance (the Doneil Henry Right Back Experiment has been the most destructive since the Manhattan Project)? Obliviousness (with Canada effectively needing a goal in Honduras, Floro subbed on defensive player Nik Ledgerwood for a striker, the superbly useless Cyle Larin)? Does he even care (seriously, people were upset about Floro not celebrating Manjrekar James’s goal enough)? What a useless empty sack. He didn’t even call up the players I like! Small wonder he’s been sacked from almost every job he’s ever held like 99% of the world’s soccer managers.

Benito Floro looks set to get scapegoated. Just as Stephen Hart was in 2012, after losing that 8-1 game in Honduras following up a qualification campaign in which Canada was hopeless in front of goal. Hart currently coaches Trinidad and Tobago, who are winning their qualifying group and already assured of a place in the hex. Oh, yeah, Trinidad and Tobago’s group was a bit easier than ours, but Hart got a 0-0 draw with the United States at home and a 2-1 victory over Guatemala away, both results we’d give our eye teeth for.

Just as Colin Miller was after the 2013 Gold Cup. Miller was acting as interim coach during a Gold Cup that saw Canada embarrassingly lose to Martinique, play a decent loss to Mexico, and a rather boring nothing-to-play-for draw against Panama, all without scoring a single goal. Three quarters of his team was sick and others had better things to do. As the interim coach Miller was not exactly sacked, but Floro’s appointment was announced during the Gold Cup Miller was coaching. Anyway, despite plenty of criticism over the years Miller’s FC Edmonton squad just played a rollicking 2-2 draw at Ottawa despite missing two starters on international duty and is in the middle of its best-ever season, with very strong odds of a playoff spot.

Dale Mitchell, our 2008 Judas, has never returned to professional coaching after that letdown. Instead he is director of coaching at Coquitlam Metro-Ford, the latest in a series of developmental spots he’s held across the Lower Mainland. Coquitlam’s youth clubs, boys and girls, are perennial provincial contenders, their boys U-18s participating in nationals this year. A number of current youth internationals including Kadin Chung, Julia Kostecki, and Caitlin Shaw have come through their program. So Mitchell is doing all right for himself.

It wasn’t many months ago that Benito Floro was Canadian soccer’s hero of the hour. Not merely because he coached Real Madrid, but because he got us that long-awaited home win over Honduras and convinced several waverers and non-Canadians to join our national setup. Junior Hoilett and Steven Vitoria had long pushed Canada off in favour of other ambitions but, with their careers not leading to the European Championships in the foreseeable future, accepted Floro’s call. Scott Arfield, of course, is not Canadian in any sense whatsoever, but had a coincidental family connection and accepted the summons from a country he’d never been to when Scotland seemed uninterested. All these additions were much-touted, put squarely in Floro’s favour, and in the end made very little difference.

You know, I’m beginning to think it’s not the coach.

Long-term everybody knows that the problems are far deeper than any senior national team personnel, and most of us agree that a proper Canadian soccer pyramid will help us in twenty years, but that doesn’t explain our underachievement now. If I had a quick solution I would tell you. But slapping another coat of paint on top of our crumbling wall obviously isn’t going to help. Sure, many of us disagreed with Floro’s decisions but that’s just another way of saying “Benito Floro coaches a sport.” Had our first taste of John Herdman been 2015’s backpasses-and-Tancredi show rather than the 2012 miracle, women’s fans might have called for his head, which would have been the greatest mistake in Canadian soccer history.

Of course, John Herdman does have one advantage. While his teams always have the occasional me-first player (every team does), they are for the most part a collection of women who have spent a lot of time together and who are whole-heartedly devoted to the maple leaf. They don’t need to be coddled and given perks in excess of their performance. They don’t need to be mollycoddled on higher, strategic matters like what city games will be held in. They aren’t replaced two, three at a time by lukewarm Canadians who only answered our call because their preferred country wasn’t coming and immediately got slammed into the starting eleven.

This isn’t a gender thing. Plenty of international-calibre Canadian men’s players fit the ideal I just described. They’d run through a wall for the red and white. Some of those players got left out in favour of foreign mercenaries and Canadians who couldn’t care less, flopping and hot-dogging with one eye on the stands for scouts. That strategy has been a constant for as long as our coaching carousel. Maybe that’s where we should change first? If you can’t be the most talented, and Canada can’t, you can at least work the hardest, want it the most, and drive on your teammates the furthest.

(notes and comments…)

99 Friendship Episode 8

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · August 30th, 2016 · No comments

It took a little while for this podcast to happen. Regular Two Fat Bastards listeners may recall that, frequently, my Skype recording tool would randomly go on strike like a French railway worker and suddenly we wouldn’t have a podcast that week. Well, the software I use to record 99 Friendship is actually very reliable, but unfortunately when we recorded on Sunday evening Skype itself decided to trip balls on gamma rays and prevent the recording from working.

It was a blessing in disguise, though, because shortly after we recorded Jessie Fleming made herself famous by absolutely debauching the National Collegiate Athletics Association with her primordial excellence. It was the apex of a weekend of great plays from Canada’s NCAA wosoloists, and we talk about lots of them. Then there’s Canada’s shockingly high number four in the FIFA women’s world rankings, whether it will last for long (it won’t), and for some reason segments on Bryce Alderson and Montreal Impact season ticket holder gatherings. I would say this makes sense in context but that’s only partially true. No curling this week, though.

Make sure you check out jessie fleming dot amazing dot meme (she actually scored with her head), Nichelle Prince humiliating Florida Gulf Coast University schmucks, and Amandine Saint-Henry Pierre-Louis dribbling through most of Clemson. All three videos are well worth seeing.

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99 Friendship Episode 7

By Carolyn Duthie and Benjamin Massey · August 22nd, 2016 · No comments

The Canadian women’s national soccer team are Olympic bronze medalists.

On this episode of 99 Friendship we therefore concentrate on the matters which are most important to the Canadian woso addict. Namely:

  • Brent Laing’s hairline.
  • Rachel Homan’s connectedness.
  • Just mixed doubles curling sort of generally.
  • The difference between the player drafts in the NWHL and the CWHL.

However, don’t be fooled. The podcast is still majority woso. NCAA season is kicking off, even though some of the Canadian team is hanging out in South America, and we of course need to discuss that for a bit! And I guess there was some other women’s soccer in Rio or something that we mention at the beginning but I imagine you’ll skip over that part. It is good fun, this episode, and you will hopefully learn something. (About curling and women’s hockey.)

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Victory with Honour

By Benjamin Massey · August 21st, 2016 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

I’ve waited a few days to write this. Why was I not sprinting for my laptop, getting the words out of my burning fingers, screaming with joy at the Canadian women’s national team defending its bronze medal? Especially when it was not a London-style demifluke but a comprehensive dismantling of the well-matched-on-paper Brazil in Brazil, when Brazil’s best eleven recently beat Canada’s best eleven fairly easily in a Toronto friendly.

Because it didn’t really matter.

By the time the Germans beat us we’d proven what we needed to prove. Our young players had taken that decisive step in a major tournament, with Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming, and Janine Beckie fighting over team MVP honours. A gold medal would have meant everything, obviously, but another bronze is, from the perspective of the long-time fan, a cherry on top of a sundae that would have been perfectly delicious without one. (I do not say the players felt, or should have felt, this way; both London veterans and first-timers were quite rightly starving for the podium. But for a fan, things are different.)

Well, we got our cherry. It was good. It was totally deserved; in his excitement John Herdman put Canada into bunker mode prematurely, Brazil got a goal back on a defensive miscue, and we had a few minutes of uncertainty that did not reflect the 75 minutes Canada spent running Brazil’s show, or the obviously-superior Canadian cohesion and conditioning that would have made us favourites in extra time anyway*. Josée Bélanger, Sophie Schmidt, and Deanne Rose killed the game to death and in hindsight we were stupid to worry. The women did their leap off the podium, posed with their bronze medals, and even those who already had one seemed perfectly pleased to get another. I can think of one better way for soccer to start a Friday… but only one.

It wasn’t the same on the other side. The Brazilians needed victory so badly, to the point where a desperate, heart-broken Marta went on Brazilian television and almost desperately begged her countrymen to keep the faith. The Brazilian women have always been the poor relations for their soccer federation, usually playing in men’s-cut kits without enough training camps and limited exposure to first-class competitive environments. This isn’t the first time Marta and her comrades have briefly taken off in Brazil, but in the past momentum petered out and it was back to the same old institutional inadequacy. Medalling at home could have made all the difference and the players knew it. Instead, a Brazilian media outlet reported that the team’s funding is now in doubt[1] [Portuguese]. This is one time when the old Canadian cliché of “who wanted it more” definitely doesn’t apply.

But we’re happy. Five wins, no draws, one loss in the Olympics. Beat France and Germany, beat the hosts, beat Australia. A significantly better performance against the French than we got in London, with the same happy result. A full team effort, not “Christine Sinclair and Erin McLeod punch in cheat codes and turn superhuman.” That was the best major tournament Canadian soccer has ever had, and you can’t ask for more than that.

No, I lie. You can. You have to.

Christine Sinclair said it in a Facebook video with Karina LeBlanc[2]. LeBlanc asked “what’s going to keep you going?” and after only a moment’s thought Sinclair replied “I’m kinda sick of the bronze medal.” And if she’s sick of it, so am I.

At the end of the 2015 Women’s World Cup it looked like our window had closed. As tournament hosts we had home-field advantage and a favourable draw, the best opportunity to actually win a major international trophy we’d ever get, while our stars were on the tail-end of their primes. Despite playing well we went out in the quarterfinal. There was nothing for the team to be ashamed of, that loss to England was harsh, but it didn’t matter. Yet both fans and officials kept the faith. For all the disappointment and debate over selections there was never any suggestion that John Herdman’s job was under pressure. So Herdman could take the risk of integrating youngsters when running his veterans into the ground would have been safer. Beckie got into the first team, Lawrence was transformed into a fullback, Fleming became an automatic starter, Rose and Shelina Zadorsky went from obscurity to surefire Olympians in about ten months.

When you run five experiments like that you’re lucky if two pan out. Either John Herdman is even more brilliant than we thought or he took all the bad luck from 2015 and cashed it in for 2016, because so far he’s five-for-five. Lawrence turned out to be one of the best fullbacks in women’s soccer and is my vote for Canadian player of the year, Fleming was at her best in the most important matches and is making the leap before our eyes, Beckie not only scores but generates chances and gets in beautiful positions, Zadorsky has been perfectly respectable, and while you have to call Rose a prospect she had a serious early impact. There are more young players who haven’t yet broken in but have every chance in the next two years: Victoria Pickett, the Sarahs Kinzner and Stratigakis, and Gabby Carle being the most prominent, with Sura Yekka still lurking. Suddenly, and who saw this coming, Canada’s selection for the 2019-20 World Cup/Olympic cycle looks stronger than that for 2015-16.

So if Sinclair is sick of bronze medals there’s a small but real chance that Canada will be well-positioned to get her an upgrade. A World Cup or a gold medal for Canadian soccer would, under any circumstances, be an unprecedented national achievement, but in 2019 and 2020 there’ll be more on the line than mere triumph, glory, immortality, and eternal celebration. There’ll be Christine Sinclair’s place in the history of the sport.

Whenever she scores we talk about #ChasingAbby, and becoming the all-time leading international goal-scorer would be incredible, but nobody has ever doubted that Christine Sinclair can put the ball in the net. The only question, mostly from outsiders who don’t watch her day after day, is her record with her team. “Sure, Canada spent hundreds of games lumping the ball up to Sincy and letting her knock it in, but what’s it gotten them? It’s one thing to be the alpha dog on a team that’s never in the running, it’s another to lead a team to victory like Abby Wambach.” The highest honours in her international career are these two bronze medals and silver in the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship. It’s not fair, but you see it in every sport: when ranking the all-time greats, winning counts.

It’s because Sinclair has bled and fought and broken bones for a team that was not always worthy of her invincible talents that we, and now I do mean both fans and players, have such an obligation to get her one big prize. She is the best player in women’s soccer history. She represented soccer in this country during some of its darkest, most obscure days. She began her career swinging from 55,000-strong crowds at Commonwealth Stadium for the U-19s to 550 people watching senior friendlies at the University of Victoria, because the country had not yet learned to embrace this team unconditionally. Only Sinclair could teach us. Not because she’s some huge media presence (she is, deliberately, a notoriously indifferent interview), not because she was pushed on us as some human interest story, but because she kept performing, in thankless obscurity, for years and years and years and years, scoring, scoring, scoring, fighting, adding one page after another to her developing legend, until even the most casual sports fans couldn’t tear their eyes away. The quintessential episode will always be the 2011 World Cup, where Sinclair scored a scorching free kick goal against the host Germans, broke her nose, came out in a ghastly face mask, and fought like a goddamned Greek goddess before the astonished eyes of the world even as her team, badly chosen and badly coached, comprehensively decomposed around her. The Canadian women’s national team emerged from that tournament with not even the slightest trace of credit, except for Sinclair, who earned the Order of Canada. Never, not even the 2012 Olympic semifinal, could you so literally say of an athlete that “she was worth the price of admission on her own.”

For most veteran players, no matter what their contributions and how great their personalities, there comes a point when they must be gently eased out of the picture. That point should never come for Christine Sinclair. Not because she is immune to the ravages of age, but because she is an exception to the usual hyper-competitive rules.

Daniel Squizzato wrote that “Sinclair deserves to lead this team for as long as her body will allow her.[3] Right now that’s easy to say, because Sinclair just scored three goals at the Olympics with two from open play, including the bronze-medal winner. Though not the focal point of Canada’s attack anymore, no longer the best forward alive, there’s no doubt among the sensible that Sinclair is still worth a starting spot. In strictly on-field terms we could live without her (actually a good thing) but I wouldn’t want to. However, over the next cycle, as she goes from mid- to late-thirties, time will exact its inevitable toll. The injuries are slowly accumulating already. Christine Sinclair can beat a lot of opponents single-handed but not that one. Nobody believes that Sinclair would stick around long after she’d lost her last trace of quality like some Americans of the past, but, especially when there’s one last tournament ahead, athletes tend to go too late rather than too early.

So be it. It’s possible that Sinclair will be capable of playing a useful role at age 37, but if she isn’t, bring her anyway. Cheer her on and support her without condition, do everything in your power as a fan or as a player to ensure that she can get that precious championship. The kids will get their chance regardless, we can afford to show the loyalty due to the ultimate legend. Spare nothing to get her that title, whether it’s playing 90 minutes for the senior WNT or buying tickets to local women’s soccer teams that get our players games. Sinclair carried us single-handed for so long, if we have to carry her for a moment, let us smile while we do it. Because if Christine Sinclair can stand proud and finally hear the Canadian anthem at the end of a game as well as the beginning, we’ll know that even this cruel world can be just.

(notes and comments…)