Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey

December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Very early indeed this morning, your friend and mine Michael McColl published over at AFTN Canada a post explaining his opinion that MLS has no obligations to Canadian soccer[1]. As someone whose opinion notoriously runs the other way, I have been called out to reply. I will oblige.

I do not mean to address McColl’s preference for club over country; that’s personal. (And he’s Scottish so, y’know, he’s responding to the incentives he’s got.) What I’m discussing is his argument that the Canadian MLS teams have no responsibility, and should have no responsibility, to develop Canadian talent.

These sorts of arguments always come down to two things: GIT DAT MONEY and WIN DOZE GAMEZ. Weird things for supporters to say. We all want our team to win, obviously, but that’s clearly not the most important thing: if it was we’d all cheer for Bayern Münich. We certainly wouldn’t be fans of the MLS Vancouver Whitecaps, a team proud of barely finishing in the top half twice in four years. There’s got to be something beyond numbers on a spreadsheet that keeps us coming to the park week in, week out. This is, in fact, the point.

And then there’s the financial argument. “Did Canada put any money into the MLS teams?!” Well, as it happens, yeah[2]. These self-sacrificing MLS team owners who only want to turn a wee little profit have by no means paid their own way. In terms of dollars and cents the Canadian public has bought a right to demand something from our MLS clubs. But it doesn’t matter.

If professional clubs are meant to be just another company then there’s no reason for them to ever have a single fan. You don’t see people going around wearing Telus shirts saying “yeah, they’ve been my phone company since I was a kid.” Even I don’t do that, and my dad works for Telus. In Vancouver you more commonly get people protesting corporations they feel put profit ahead of community. The entire business model of professional sports requires that we devote ourselves to an idea higher than any corporate interest: as fans we are entitled to demand something in exchange.

Why should we, as fans, give a hoot about franchise fees? We’re not shareholders in the Montreal Impact or the Vancouver Whitecaps. (You might be an investor in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment I guess.) I have no objection to Canadian soccer teams making money; in fact, I hope they do. But I’m not going to ignore everything that should turn a mere franchise into my club so Joey Saputo can have more caviar in his luxury suite.

Of course, nobody wants Canada’s professional teams to go broke. Look at the Whitecaps of the mid-2000s: playing Canadians for 20,000 minutes a season they won league championships[3]. Pretty sure they went utterly bankrupt. Pretty sure that’s what happened. If they routinely sold out Swangard Stadium, had a captain from Vancouver Island, and a bevy of beloved, successful local players, somebody would have mentioned it.

Or the Montreal Impact of that era. Routinely in the top of the table, the “least Canadian team in domestic professional soccer” which would make them the most Canadian team in MLS by miles, a bunch of long-term players and the occasional native son on a star turn like Ali Gerba. I seem to recall that they wound up building a soccer-specific stadium, won a dozen Voyageurs Cups, and got deep in a CONCACAF Champions League while drawing formidable crowds… but that’s probably a pot-induced hallucination. Next you’ll tell me that even the Toronto Lynx, who were an advertisement for how not to run a professional soccer team, are still around in USL PDL. Everyone knows that playing Canadians makes you broke. That’s why, when a long-forgotten MLS franchise named Toronto FC was founded with a high Canadian quota in place and they lost most of their games, the team plunged into obscurity and team owner Mr. MLSE can now be found outside Union Station giving handies for pocket change.

But isn’t it true that the biggest soccer nations in the world don’t do this sort of navel-gazing? Look, as McColl urges us, at the foreigner-replete Spanish La Liga, English Premier League, and Italian Serie A! They don’t demand a proportion of Spanish or English or Italian players and they’re doing great! (This amounts to saying “these countries are in the European Union”; it is difficult legally to rule out European foreigners in these countries. La Liga restricts non-EU players but can’t restrict non-Spaniards.)

These are three of the strongest leagues in the world: not exactly comparable to a podunk salary-capped regional league. Besides, as McColl ought to have known, England is plagued by just this problem, despite domestic representation that would make a Canadian jump for joy: the Football Association’s tightening work permit rules are one attempt at a solution[4]. And what of Germany? The world’s top soccer league requires a high proportion of homegrown players on a team’s roster, and their football association sets strict standards and demands heavy investment in youth academies[5]. The Germans, I shouldn’t need to tell you, have enjoyed some success with this approach.

In Australia, a country comparable to Canada in many ways, the A-League restricts teams to a maximum of five imports, a number that’s actually going down[6]. The result? The A-League has ten teams, nine in Australia proper (population 24 million), international television coverage, and a fast-rising salary cap. Their national team has moved to the tougher Asian region for more of a challenge and A-League-developed players like Mitchell Langerak, Joshua Brillante, and Robbie Kruse have joined some of the world’s top teams. If only we had Australia’s problems. Nor is their approach unusual: leagues in Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other strong countries have adopted increasingly strict pro-domestic rules.

Yeah, the men’s national team only plays a few times a year (and never in Vancouver). Yeah, it’s incompetent. Yeah, over the years the Canadian Soccer Association hasn’t been able to find its ass with a 15-page PDF titled “Roadmap to Canada’s Ass 2025”. That’s not the point. The Canadian national teams don’t represent the CSA, they represent us, the people of Canada. They are eleven men or women who unify us from Victoria to St. John’s. They are the apex of what we can hope to achieve: five MLS Cups in Vancouver wouldn’t add up to the world-wide attention and the domestic hope from a single Canadian World Cup appearance.

Telling us our MLS teams should ignore that so they can make more money is an offense to the entire concept of supporting a club.

[1] — McColl, Michael. “Club over Country: Why MLS and the Whitecaps have no overriding responsibility to improve the Canadian national team.” AFTN Canada, December 3, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014.

[2] — Toronto’s BMO Field was built as part of the Canadian Soccer Association’s bid for the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup; public funding amounted to $35 million. See: “Toronto FC looks to improve fan experience.” The Canadian Press via CBC Sports, August 8, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2014. Government will also be on the hook for at least $10 million of the proposed expansion. The Vancouver Whitecaps play in BC Place, renovated by the taxpayer at a cost of $514 million. See: Mackin, Bob. “Exclusive: BC Place renovation final costs were five times original budget.” Business Vancouver, January 3, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2014. The Whitecaps are also benefiting from, by the latest figures, $13.9 million in taxpayer money for their training centre, partially on the premise that it could be used by the women’s national team (something the women’s national team wasn’t told about). See: Weber, Marc. “Whitecaps reveal details on USL PRO franchise; soccer development centre at UBC.” The Province, November 21, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014. The Montreal Impact were a relative bargain: the renovation of Stade Saputo to MLS standards cost the Quebec taxpayer only $23 million. See: Muret, Don. “Montreal Impact’s $23 million expansion a relative bargain.” The Sporting News, February 28, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2014. This list is far from complete, encompassing only multi-million-dollar capital subsidies.

[3] — For more information on how Canadian teams used to play Canadians sometimes, see: Massey, Benjamin. “Canadian Domestic Content Before and In the MLS Era.” Maple Leaf Forever!, February 14, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014.

[4] — Draper, Rob. “FA to tighten up work permit rules and limit foreign influx to help English talent develop.” The Daily Mail, September 7, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2014.

[5] — Liew, Jonathan. “German football has learnt from past mistakes to become football’s new superpower.” The Daily Telegraph, April 26, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2014.

[6] — Greco, John. “Visa spot debate hots up.”, October 20, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014.

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One response to “Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada”

  1. Seathanaich says:

    This is a great dissection of McColl’s article, which I also commented on at the CSN website. You have pointed out most of his factual mistakes and corrected them (tax payer funding for Canadian stadiums, flawed comparisons to England and Italy, inability to figure out the respective lessons from England and Germany, etc). You have also rightly brought up what Australia is doing, a country we would do well to emulate in just about any sport you care to name.

    You really need to go back to posting your articles there as well as here, to increase readership.

    Sport has an emotional base for everyone of us who doesn’t change his “favourite” team every year to last year’s winner.

    I think of support for sports teams as a graph, upon which “entertains me with skillful play” and “represents me in some way” are the two axes. All of us support various teams for some combination of them entertaining us, and them representing us. For some people, the identity with the team is the primary concern, and they watch in the hope that their local team will also entertain. For some people, the team is largely thrust upon them by family, friends, marketing, etc, and they adopt whichever “big” team has success early in their interest in the sport, usually on television rather than through live attendance.