Let me take you back, to the heady days of last Friday evening. After a 0-0 draw with Honduras that was more than respectable as these things go, Canada has emerged from the group stage at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time since 2009.
The 2009 crew was a rag-tag bunch of misfits plus Atiba Hutchinson, and while they outplayed Honduras in the quarter-final they were always an average team overachieving. This year, by contrast, we have the future of the Canadian national team minus Atiba Hutchinson. Hoilett, Arfield, Vitoria, Cavallini (!), hardly a dodgy dual-national is missing. The sole blot on the copybook is Cyle Larin, who, returning from Canada’s June friendly against Curaçao, had far too much to drink, got in his car, drove down the wrong side of the road, and tried to excuse himself to the arresting officer by saying he was a professional soccer player from Canada. We learned that there was video footage of Larin inexcusably, disgracefully drunk at the wheel of his vehicle and that this was as open and shut an incident as you will ever find. Even fans who disdain soccer teams playing judiciary felt a distinct uneasiness.
It’s interesting, how the Canadian Soccer Association handled the Larin case. There clearly was discipline, since he was left off a Gold Cup roster he obviously would otherwise have made. They can’t claim it’s none of their business since they intruded into it. But there was no announcement saying Larin had been suspended for x games, and he was on the “taxi squad” of players to be recalled in contingencies. One is inevitably left with the impression that Octavio Zambrano would sooner have not punished Larin at all, and the Canadian Soccer Association was most concerned with public relations. Had Canada been eliminated in the group stage, as in the previous three Gold Cups, they could have said “we suspended Cyle for the tournament” and nobody could have contradicted them. In the event Canada was not only alive, it was well, and for the umpteenth time principle was discarded for expediency.
You see where this is heading. CONCACAF rules permit a coach to replace six players from his team with guys from the taxi squad, and Zambrano replaced one. The successful Canadian team was broken up only so far as Cyle Larin, who missed Canada’s earlier achievements on account of his literally criminal selfishness, replaced the blameless Raheem Edwards. On top of that, come Thursday evening, Larin was immediately put into the starting lineup. Team? What team?
It’s hardly necessary to say Larin was terrible, because for Canada he usually is. Larin has scored two goals in fourteen games, including ten starts, against remotely serious soccer countries and one was by accident. His howling misses outnumber his tidy finishes. He scores in Major League Soccer, but MLS is too poor a league to predict quality. Bradley Wright-Phillips, a bad English Championship striker with only one aspect to his game and never anywhere near international honours, may be the best striker in MLS history. Add in Larin’s incapacity in other aspects of his game and there’s no reason, beyond a superstitious admiration of the Americans, to give him the benefit of the doubt in the tougher CONCACAF arena.
Larin was just trash. Breaking up a winning setup he had no part in making, he missed an open header, failed to make challenging runs, went wide left a couple times and did nothing, failed to harass his defenders into mistakes, failed to execute a single defensive or midfield play. The man is garbage when he can’t finish chances, so for Canada he is almost always garbage.
But a team can survive a selfish, one-dimensional, mercurial player. In fact Canada did: infinitely-ballyhooed mercenary Junior Hoilett played almost every minute of the Gold Cup like he thought England would notice him if he just dangled one more guy, but in this quarter-final his selfishness also yielded a stunning goal from a mile out. When Hoilett is on the ball his teammates almost slump in despair, they know they’ll have to run sixty yards back when he almost-inevitably turns it over, but the point is they do know and they account for it.
The real damage was not in having a bad striker. The damage was that the team collapsed around him. By the time Larin was finally removed we were down 2-0 to Jamaica. Jamaica! A team Canada, even in its present decadence, consistently outplays. A team whose idea of a star is Darren Mattocks. Jamaica.
Lucas Cavallini, who replaced Larin, is no holy terror. I would have preferred Anthony Jackson-Hamel or Tosaint Ricketts, the maligned man, the guy who doesn’t create drama or try to get on SportsCentre so doesn’t get his minutes, he just delivers. But Cavallini has a defender-annoying hip-checking level of pissy effort that Larin hasn’t. Canada tried countless long shots with Larin on: Jamaica smothered them like unplanned babies. With Cavallini agitating the Reggae Boyz, not only could Hoilett score an unchallenged thirty-yarder but he could damned near do it twice. In the last half-hour, especially when Jackson-Hamel entered, Canada looked like they could play heroes and overturn a two-goal deficit for the first time since, according to the Carolyn Duthie Research Bureau, October 1988. They didn’t, but what a reasonable effort it was all the same.
We are cynical men, we soccer fans. We sneer at the idea of intangibles, of friendship and connectedness and team cohesion and other woo-woo nouns. Any Canadian men’s head coach of the last twenty years would have done what Zambrano did and give liquored-up Larin his starting spot based on pedigree and club form. But John Herdman, coach of Canada’s women’s team, definitely wouldn’t. And ask yourself, out of the men and the women which team consistently outperforms the theoretical sum of its parts, and which team consistently underperforms it?
Once-and-future Canadian national team standout, and eventual Vancouver Whitecaps captain, Russell Teibert has always had the distinctive fashion sense that has gone along with his outstanding play and gentlemanly demeanour. Even as the Whitecaps were mired in their worst Canada-hating spells there was Teibert, looking brilliant both off and on the field, promising better days without a word. (I am a Russell Teibert fan of the old school; perhaps you can tell.)
With MLS bringing in flashy foreigners every year no home-grown soccer player can stand still. Teibert certainly has not. In his professional career he has gone from a dazzling number 10 to a workmanlike defensive midfielder. He is not only the last Vancouver Whitecap remaining from their pre-MLS era but has almost a year’s seniority on the next-longest servant, Jordan Harvey. He has worn the armband for his club. He has quarreled, and made up, with national team coaches. He has played defense, central midfield, and wing. He has survived many players who supposedly were going to do him out of a job. He is still only 24 years old, barely aged out of NCAA and the MLS SuperDraft.
More importantly, his haircuts have moved with him, up and down, and I mean that literally. Like his own career they have been a roller-coaster of promise and nightmare, but they have always been interesting. Let us recap the most important thing we can talk about in the world today: Russell Teibert’s hairstyles.
I have the hardest time convincing people that just because international soccer is corrupt and insane, it does not necessarily follow that the Canadian national soccer program should be corrupt and insane. We can, and should, hold ourselves to a higher standard. The United States may run out a team full of Germans, fine, the Qataris may massacre platoons of slave labourers to build stadiums for tournaments gained under false pretenses, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. However, this has nothing to do with how Canada needs conduct itself. Just as bad, when fans (and “fans”) urge us to sell our souls, usually we don’t get anything for it. Our morals are compromised, our dignity cracked, and we’re exactly where we were before, and nobody sincerely thinks it’ll be any different. It’s just naked cynicism, a total lack of ideals in an area where we can actually afford to be idealistic, all so that the commentator can look jaded and therefore knowledgeable.
Today, the Canadian Soccer Association released a teaser video where… well, I say “teaser” video, actually it’s quite obviously Junior Hoilett in a Canada kit talking about how fans should support the team. It is a miracle Hoilett did not explode from hypocrisy. Hoilett is 25 years old, was born and mostly raised in Ontario, and has never chosen to represent Canada internationally. There were long rumours that Hoilett would play for Jamaica, the land of his father, and as recently as April, Hoilett was, according to Canadian head coach Benito Floro, “fighting a lot with the decision to play for Jamaica or to play with us.”. Years ago when his career was going well he publicly expressed interest in playing for England, even though under current rules that would be impossible.
Finally, Hoilett has decided to come home, at a moment where his stock at his club has never been lower and it’s doubtful he’d crack Jamaica’s starting eleven. He is a reserve player in the English Championship, and Queen’s Park Rangers are so dismayed by his wages and his inconsistent play that they are quite literally willing to give him away for free. Players who have answered Canada whenever and whereever she has called are being bumped for a guy in hid mid-twenties who can’t crack the first team in the English second division. Is this the man for whom you are willing to sell out your principles? Is he really?
Curiously, in spite of his new-found dedication Hoilett chose not to appear for the recent World Cup qualifiers against Dominica or Belize. He probably had a dentist’s appointment. However, he has found the time for a more glamorous friendly in the United States against Ghana that will put him in the shop window. This does not particularly indicate a sincere embrace of Canadian soccer. I’ll be interested to see how many craphole Central American stadiums we ever see Junior suit up in.
I’m not saying Hoilett is a terrible human being. He left Canada at an early age and made us no promises. In a free country he is entitled to look out for his own interests. Nor am I saying that I would never take Hoilett back. If I were king of Canada and he was interested in returning, I would say “that’s terrific, Junior. Start playing some first team soccer and we’ll bring you in for a camp.” This would leave the door open and he could enter our picture or exit it, at his leisure. It would hinder the perception that Hoilett is being gifted a roster spot at the expense of loyal Canadians, an impression all the stronger when Hoilett is a reserve player and Floro has long complained that his players aren’t getting enough first-team minutes. Finally, it would not hurt us competitively in any meaningful sense. A Championship reserve player is not the difference between Canada qualifying for the World Cup and not doing so. At best he’s the difference between 8-1 and 8-2.
But what we’re getting is a widely-promoted celebration of a player who’s coming back for a relatively noteworthy neutral-site friendly in the United States when he needs to give his career a boost. We’re rewarding somebody who ignored us for years when we needed him, and who quite publicly sought alternatives to us for as long as they lasted. Someone like Tosaint Ricketts, who has been incredibly loyal and worked incredibly hard, or Cyle Larin, who despite his prominence has accepted every single call the nation has made on him, is going to sit on the bench while Hoilett exults in the limelight. Meanwhile, other potential Canadians will look on and say “it does not matter what I do, the Canadian soccer program will be there for me as a last resort, welcoming me with fanfare and a fucking parade. Why shouldn’t I flirt with Chile? I could not possibly be hurt.”
If you reward bad behaviour, you’ll get more of it.
And what about basic pride? We’ve been chasing this kid for years and years, and he is finally so out of options that he’ll toss us a pity fuck. Is this something to be happy about? Canadian men’s soccer is debased, pathetic, but that’s no excuse to glory in it, to rub our faces against the concrete and kiss the boots of anyone who stops kicking us. People say we need to get top players to commit to Canada and I agree. How will we do that by showing that Canada is always there as your fallback option, and that we have so little dignity that we will thank you for ignoring us, and put you on a pedestal above those who have shown us loyalty?
In soccer as in life, nobody is attracted to somebody with no backbone. Making our program the bitch of our least deserving players, from the Frank Yallop era onward, has been a complete failure. The Hoilett party is the apotheosis of this attitude. He spits on us and spits on us and spits on us, but it doesn’t matter, because he will condescend to pull on a red jersey, and the years of scorn only makes him more worthy of praise from the Canadian soccer establishment. Despicable. Hoilett has proven nothing to me. The mere act of showing up, eight years late, hasn’t earned him a single fucking clap. Canada means too much for that.
After a trial with the New York Cosmos, Canadian central defender Nana Attakora has signed with the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions. Congratulations to him. San Antonio is a good organization and a great opportunity, and Attakora will play under one of the league’s three Canadian coaches, Alen Marcina. With the Scorpions’ defense threadbare now that Greg Janicki has moved closer to home and Adrian Cann’s career seems over, I tip young Nana to start (probably alongside former Toronto FC teammate Julius James).
Attakora, as you probably know, is an active member of the Canadian men’s national team pool and has been a regular for head coach Benito Floro. He started both friendlies earlier this year against Iceland and was in camp, without playing, for a 2014 match against Panama. At the time Attakora was without a contract, having failed to stick at MLS DC United. 25 years old, Attakora already has nine caps should have many more years of professional soccer ahead of him.
I predict Attakora will not receive another cap while at San Antonio.
There will be many excuses not to call him. Even at his best Attakora comes in behind David Edgar, Andre Hainault, and Dejan Jakovic on the centre back depth chart; most will add Doneil Henry. Attakora is a depth player but one who has answered Canada’s call with enthusiasm and not looked out-of-place on the pitch. We have always been forced to use our depth more than countries with domestic leagues and kinder schedules, and with friendlies, the Gold Cup, youngsters hosting the Pan-American Games, and World Cup qualifiers, the national pool will be under pressure this year. We will certainly see players of less significance and experience than Attakora called in.
Maybe Attakora will visit a camp or two under similar circumstances to Frank Jonke, who attended one of Floro’s camps in January 2014 after signing but before playing with FC Edmonton. However, no NASL player has yet made a cap for Floro, despite Canadians like Edson Edward and John Smits performing well at positions of need. Unattached players may certainly play, as Attakora did. So may players from the amateur ranks. But NASLers? Not yet.
Is it so implausible that Attakora, who Floro thought useful when he had no club, will be looked down upon now that he has one? He’s no prospect and won’t force his way into our best eighteen. Perhaps prospects like Hanson Boakai have a chance, but NASL players could hardly ask less from Floro than he’s given.
I hope that I am wrong; I often am. Attakora’s arrival in the NASL may motivate our coaches to learn more about that difficult but useful league. Edwards, the useful depth right back Canada has wanted for five years, may finally get his chance. Mallan Roberts may yet be dissuaded from playing for Sierra Leone, who would already have cap-tied him if not for ebola and a coaching change. But I don’t think so. High up in the Canadian Soccer Association there is respect for the NASL, but it has not yet been inherited by the technical staff.
While not yet official, John Molinaro at Sportsnet has reported that the Vancouver Whitecaps are about to release midfielder Bryce Alderson. Alderson did not play a single league game with the senior Whitecaps and only two in the Voyageurs Cup despite success in USL PDL, USL Pro, and, recently, a Canadian senior national team call-up.
I think Bryce Alderson is an excellent young player, but he’s a defensive midfielder and even I won’t say he’s a better one than Matías Laba. Nor is he necessarily better than Gershon Koffie or Russell Teibert right now, though Alderson is only twenty years old. The Canadian Vancouver has given up on might be younger than the American Vancouver gets in the first round of the next SuperDuperDraft.
You know where I’m going with this but there’s something to consider first: to an extent the Whitecaps and Alderson are being screwed by MLS contract rules. As soon as a player like Alderson signs a Generation Adidas contract the clock is ticking: the youngster is getting a lot of money, off the salary cap, but someday soon the team is going to have to pay for him and work him into their cap structure.
In the latest MLS Players Union list Alderson has a guaranteed compensation of $115,000. Alderson signed young, 17 years old in November 2011, and from the instant his pen hit the paper he had to make a very quick impact indeed to prove he was worth all that money when his option came up. Julian de Guzman, to pick a name, spent most of his 20-year-old season as a reserve player on a mediocre 2. Bundesliga team. It’s hard to think he would have stuck around if he’d been an MLS player suddenly representing a six-figure cap hit, and how much poorer would the Canadian national team have been as a result?
If a young player hasn’t become a first team regular by the time that $115,000 hits the salary cap the team has a problem: even if they like him, how are they supposed to keep him? In short, not everything is Vancouver’s fault, and the ideal solution is for homegrown Generation Adidas contracts to hit the salary cap starting at a certain age, rather than after a certain number of seasons. Under the current system, Alderson being a quality player for his age is completely irrelevant.
You might have to take my word for this. I’ve seen a lot of USL PDL matches, I saw Alderson captain the Whitecaps USSDA U-18 team, I even watched webstreams of some of his Charleston Battery games before he got hurt. He was getting the job done, typically against players bigger and older than him. He captained the Whitecaps U-18s and the Canadian U-17s. Sure, he’s one-footed, he isn’t a dazzling offensive player, but he’s hard to knock off the ball, he’s calm and confident winning it, he’s a good passer, he is, in short, a good young defensive midfielder. In his two (two!!!!!) games for the Whitecaps first team over three seasons, he held a certain Michael Bradley down very well in the Voyageurs Cup. I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do. Wax Martin Rennie’s car? Hit Laba and Koffie in the knee with a tire iron?
Isn’t it funny how there’s always an excuse, always some foreign player to bump Canadians out of the lineup? We couldn’t play Alderson in 2012 because John Thorrington was too valuable to lose in the playoff race. We couldn’t play Alderson in 2013 because what would the Whitecaps have done without Jun Marques Davidson or Matt Watson? Just like how Jordan Harvey and Ethan Sampson keep Sam Adekugbe out of the eleven, and Russell Teibert gets kicked to the bench as soon as Gershon Koffie is healthy. Etc. etc. ad nauseum, we’ve seen the same thing every year since Teitur Thordarson got fired. It’s gotten beyond “coincidence”.
No, of course this isn’t some “Whitecaps hate Canada!” conspiracy, but if the Whitecaps wanted to give Canadian kids a chance they had plenty of opportunities to do so. It wasn’t a priority. Promising players lost prime development years because the Whitecaps thought it was more important to bring in some fractionally better foreigner than to play the kid and invest in the future. And look at the rewards that policy has brought: two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them playoff appearances and no Voyageurs Cups. This isn’t the old “Whitecaps hate Canada” gag, and I suspect a healthy proportion of since-2011 Whitecaps fans support this. But it’s clearly happening. You look at those team sheets and you tell me.
Even the Laba signing, which was maybe the best single piece of business the Whitecaps have done as an MLS franchise, shows this attitude. To compete immediately the Whitecaps needed high-end reinforcements to several positions at the start of 2014: a forward, an attacking midfielder, a couple defenders. Knowing that Kenny Miller would leave, and that Caleb Clarke has European aspirations, Vancouver could wisely have chased a DP forward without blocking any Canadians. A top DP centre back would also have been a bold, but justifiable, move, with the star helping apprentice young Jackson Farmer until he’s ready for MLS minutes. Instead Vancouver spent heavily on Laba, an obstacle to both Alderson and Russell Teibert. Teibert also lost potential attacking midfield minutes, still where I think he’s best, to Pedro Morales and Nico Mezquida. Look at where Vancouver is allocating their resources. Look at their priorities.
Possibly the Whitecaps get these great 18-year-old players who do well against the world’s best in their age group but suddenly turn to crap when they sign MLS contracts. In this case the technical staff should not merely be sacked but set on fire. From my viewing, though, the only things Alderson was missing was his health and a chance. FC Edmonton and especially the Ottawa Fury would be well-advised to call him.
Also on his way out is Omar Salgado, another youngster coming off his Generation Adidas contract. You might remember Salgado: big, tall, trouble at practice. Though he was almost continuously injured and seldom delivered when healthy, Salgado played 1,100 MLS minutes over four seasons in Vancouver. It’s strange, isn’t it, that Salgado got several opportunities despite being older and having less success than Alderson against adults? But, of course, Salgado was a high-profile United States U-20 international and a first overall draft pick. Alderson was just some guy from Kitchener the team signed. As a Whitecap Salgado did nothing to deserve more of a shot than Alderson, yet the American played and the Canadian didn’t. Isn’t that weird?!
In Russell Teibert’s case, he knows what he needs to do to come back to the national team. I have already told him and I’m waiting. Once he does what he needs to do, he will be considered again.
Benito Floro as quoted by Red Nation Online, October 21, 2014
(5:45 PM, outside the home of the Floro family. The smell of a home-cooked dinner wafts through the open window. Two earnest young men in carefully-ironed white dress shirts stand outside the door with Cheshire smiles. The first rings the bell.)
Benito (answering the door with the air of a man irritated): Hello?
Man 1 (cheerily): Good evening, sir!
Man 2: Have you heard the Good News about Canadian Soccer Jesus?
Benito: Oh, Christ.
Man 1: The Soccer Gods love you, and want you to know and love Them. They offer you peace and joy and a Gold Cup semi-final appearance.
Man 2: “The Soccer Gods so loved the world, that They gave Their only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have an eternally high PDO.” (John Limniatis 3:16)
Man 1: It doesn’t matter how good you are compared to Colin Miller or Stephen Hart or Dale Mitchell or Stephen Hart again or Frank Yallop or Holger Osieck. All coaches are sinners, and you cannot measure to the perfection of the Soccer Gods, and so you will burn in the Eternal Fire of Honduras.
Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat…” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)
Benito: I don’t know what you’ve heard but I don’t hate Russell. As head coach I have a responsibility to…
Man 1: You’re probably wondering “if the wages of sin is defeat, and all coaches sin, then how does any coach ever reach the World Cup?”
Man 2: “For the wages of sin is defeat, but the gift of the Soccer Gods is eternal victory through Russell Teibert our Lord.” (Tino Lettieri 6:23)
Benito: I don’t know what message board rumours you’ve heard that made you do all this, and by the way how do you know where I live?
Man 1: Yes, eternal victory is a gift of the Soccer Gods, not something earned by our own work on Earth, or something that can be held up as a trophy of our own greatness. And the only way to accept that gift is to accept Canadian Soccer Jesus into your heart.
Man 2: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the marking of a tenacious midfield, and renewing of the Holy Goals.” (Rick Titus 3:5)
Man 1: For the Soccer Gods sent Canadian Soccer Jesus to Earth to atone for our footballing sins, and play for the team that hates Canada, and while we ourselves are sinners, his playoffs died for us.
Man 2: “For Teibert also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to the Soccer Gods, being put to defensive midfield obscurity in the flesh, but quickened by the Soccer.” (I Mont Pete 3:18)
Benito: And I thought Real Madrid fans were ridiculous. Listen…
Man 1: We have some wonderful literature that we would love to discuss.
Man 2: Canadian Soccer Jesus does not want to judge you. He just wants to love you.
Benito: Look, if I call Teibert to the Panama camp will you fuck off?
Luke Wileman has reported that Tesho Akindele has turned down an invitation to Canada’s friendly this month in Panama, because he’s interested in the Americans. I can’t be arsed.
Like Owen Hargreaves, Akindele was born in Calgary. Unlike Owen Hargreaves, Akindele was raised outside Canada, growing up in Thornton, Colorado. He played high school soccer in Colorado, went to college in Colorado, and now plays professionally in the United States. Since his college days Akindele has been billed with Thornton rather than Calgary as his hometown and the papers treat him like a local. He appeared in an obscure camp with the Canadian U-17 team in 2009 (with two other non-Canadian internationals, Caolan Lavery and Russell Teibert) but that was his only involvement in any Canadian program.
Akindele is, in short, American, and morally is perfectly entitled to hold out for the United States. I hope he has a nice time. Let me rephrase: I wish him no more misery than any other American player.
But what about Canada losing a promising forward? We only have guys like Simeon Jackson, a former Premier League player now in League One, and Tosaint Ricketts, our most accomplished international forward of the twenty-first century, and Iain Hume, currently playing against Nicolas Anelka in India, and Marcus Haber, and Kyle Porter, and Michael Petrasso! Who there can compare to a first-year professional with an inconsequential amateur career?
Yeah, probably too glib by half. But let’s be serious. Akindele is 22 years old: older than Petrasso, Caleb Clarke, Lucas Cavallini, and other senior Canadian international forwards of superior experience (and, I suspect, skill). At his age he hardly counts as a prospect.
Akindele’s seven goals in MLS this year is pretty good, though not first class. But those seven goals come on 16 shots on target and 30 shots directed. A 43.75% shooting percentage is absolutely not sustainable; getting 53.33% of your shots directed on target is pretty unlikely as well. With 0.824 shots on target/90 minutes and 1.545 shots directed/90 minutes, Akindele’s shooting rates this year are well behind Erik Hurtado and Luke Moore, and a shade behind Dilly Duka. All on a strong attacking team, all in his first season that would attract interest at the senior level.
Would I turn Akindele down? Of course not. Will I get upset about Canada not having him? Not in this lifetime. He’s having a journeyman’s season with star luck.
There’s another angle that’s been mentioned. Whatever you think of Akindele’s individual merits, the Canadian Soccer Association has let another one get away. What’s the CSA doing wrong? Why can’t Canada retain an American-raised player who plays in the United States and has drawn interest from the much higher-ranked American team?
Put like that it’s a really stupid question, isn’t it?
I’ll give it to you straight, Hanson Boakai is not the first member of FC Edmonton I’d call up to Canada’s senior men’s national team. (That would be Eddie Edward, followed by John Smits). But if you’re reading this from outside NASL fandom he’s probably the first one you’d call up. He has a high profile. FC Edmonton played two nationally televised games this year, against the Montreal Impact, and Boakai whooped an MLS defense stupid in both of them. He was already well-known as an exciting factor on the Canadian U-17 team and as the youngest player in NASL history. Compared to that, getting an actual right back other than Nik Ledgerwood into camp for once just doesn’t signify.
While we’re being frank: Boakai is an NASL bench player. A regular off the bench, lately, but still. You know how mediocre Kyle Bekker is despite Benito Floro’s throbbing mancrush? Right now Hanson Boakai and Kyle Bekker are at about the same stage of their careers. (This is a compliment to Boakai, who is more skilled and much younger, but it’s still important perspective.) We all have a tendency to overrate a young prospect, especially one not many of you watch much. I was one of those at last year’s Gold Cup chanting “cap-tie Aleman!”; he’s now getting zero minutes in the Costa Rican league. Youth and flash doesn’t always add up to much in the short term.
Now, none of this means I’m not thrilled to see Boakai called up. Frankly it’s a pleasant surprise to see Benito Floro having the stones to go to the NASL at all. And even if Boakai isn’t ready to take on top-five teams in the world yet, as he will be asked to against Colombia, he’s a young man and there’s a lot to be said for getting him marquee experience sooner rather than later. Bringing Boakai up is the right call, even if he can’t hack it quite yet.
Over the past few months Colin Miller has gradually extended Boakai more trust. First he’d come into games that had already been decided one way or another, then he’d come into games when the Eddies needed a spark and a goal, and lately he’s even come into games which Edmonton was leading, wearing out the opposition by running at them and threatening on the break. He’s virtually an automatic substitute these days, the twelfth man of the first eleven. There are still turnovers, as there always will be from young players who make their money off the dribble, but mistakes have come down and the work rate’s gone up. Just last weekend I saw Boakai struggle through fouls that would once have left him sitting on the grass in disgust. I’ve been known to criticize Colin Miller, but to my eye he’s making a positive difference here.
When Boakai comes on he clearly belongs, and if he’s not always making a decisive impact you definitely notice when he’s on the ball. Many Edmonton fans call for him to start; I sort of admire Miller trying to work him into the team, though, especially since so much of what makes Boakai fun to watch is running full-tilt at every defender he sees rather than pacing himself for ninety minutes.
Looking at some of the other midfielders on this Canada roster I think Boakai has a decent chance of getting his first cap if he busts ass in training and makes Floro happy. Guys like Dylan Carreiro, Manuel Aparicio, there’s no reason Boakai can’t get ahead of them. I’d take Boakai over Kyle Bekker right now and grin. Who’s the veteran wide midfielder off the bench, Issey Nakajima-Farran? Yeah, I’ll say Boakai can hustle his way into that eighteen. And when it happens the fans will be excited, leaning forward in their chairs, and he’ll probably look overwhelmed because a guy who trains against Kareem Moses and Chris de Guise is now facing one of the best international defenses on the face of the Earth. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a great moment for FC Edmonton and for Canada.
You know what I’d really like to see? Russell Teibert playing an attacking mid and working things with Boakai. Boakai does the running, tries to beat guys, Teibert controls the ball, works the passing lanes, tries to spring Boakai and give him room to play. Except, oh, wait, Teibert is still nowhere near any of Floro’s national team caps. Maybe the Whitecaps asked the CSA to leave him in Vancouver for their playoff push. I hope that’s it. (That’s right, I’m hoping that the Whitecaps are pulling a “Whitecaps hate Canada”, because I don’t want yet another situation where Canadian coaches ditch talented players who work well elsewhere because of personal disagreements.)
Yesterday, Canadian international midfielder and 18-year-old boy Samuel Piette made the mistake of trying to be funny about the Nazis. A couple months after many of his friends were tarred and feathered in the press for Instagramming a gag about Earl Cochrane, Piette celebrated the all-German UEFA Champions League final by Instagramming a gag about Hitler. One can see which reaction this would get from professional angry people.
Actually, and unusually, most of the reaction to Piette’s Instagram has been reasonably restrained, apart from Kurt Larson who stopped precisely one iota short of calling Piette a Nazi himself. I was all set to make this into some big rant about the Lamestream Media but I’m not sure it’s there apart from the Toronto Sun, and bashing the Sun for being irresponsible outrage enthusiasts is as pointlessly redundant as bashing the Nazis for not promoting diversity. So bravo people. However, there are still concerned fans, and still just enough sanctimony, and still far too many people trying to paint this as a youthful transgression at best or a moral failing at worst.
There are also practical concerns being raised about Piette’s Instagram, ones worth addressing. In the above-linked article Duane Rollins raises Germany’s infamous laws against Nazi imagery as a reason Piette might get into trouble. I am not a German lawyer but I think he’ll be fine: German laws prohibits actions like belonging to a National Socialist party, flying swastikas, denying the Holocaust, fascist or racist rallies, greetings, and salutes, things that actual Nazis do rather than just shitty gags. There are famous grey areas but these are less grey than are sometimes portrayed. The first stanza of national anthem Das Lied der Deutschen (you know, Deutschland, Deutschland über alles…) is controversial because of its territorial reach (From the Meuse to the Memel, / From the Adige to the Little Belt.) and is not part of the official national anthem but, contrary to popular belief, is no longer actually banned. Most Internet denizens know German anti-Nazi laws through restrictions forcing video game makers to scrub out swastikas for German releases, but video games are in an awkward position which may or may not fall within the protection of artistic expression and which most game companies just go along with.
Stereotype has the Germans being dour and humourless, particularly about the Third Reich, but really the Nazis are a popular theme in German comedy (as they couldn’t help but be). To my knowledge nobody has been thrown in jail for these jokes. Just for the hell of it, here’s a German parody of The Office which aired on the German television network ProSieben. It is, of course, in German. You will understand what is happening.
This isn’t to say Piette might not have public relations problems in Germany, just that I see no grounds for legal trouble. I am open to correction on this point from experts.
Piette’s real offense was that he wasn’t funny. The photo of a smug-looking Hitler and the caption “We are back bitches” does not quite carry comedic weight; one recognizes the structure of the joke without feeling in the least compelled to laugh. His caption, “Hitler und seine Armee sind züruck. Deutsch Fußball” translates as “Hitler and his army are back. German soccer.” It’s obvious what Piette is trying to do comically but there’s no joke there besides “ha! Nazis!” Let’s face it, if you’re going to go Hitler you need to beat around the bush a little, make a really good joke, or go for broke in offensiveness so hard that people laugh as a defense mechanism. Piette does none of these things. It’s like he expects Hitler to make the joke for him, but Hitler famously had a shit sense of humour. Bad choice for an opening act.
People have been hammering the Germans-taking-over-Europe jokes the past few weeks with so much vigour it’s become a cliché. I see on April 30 that I tweeted “They have the best soccer teams, the best economy, soon Germany will have the best tanks rolling through Paris and nobody will even notice.” See? We sort of hit Hitler side-on. It’s not a brilliant joke, only a couple retweets, but as of this writing I have not been featured in the Toronto Sun for it and I have 70% more Twitter followers than Piette.
The usual reaction to Piette’s Instagram has been “oh, I’m sure glad we didn’t have social media when I was 18.” Nah, I was funnier than that at 18. Then again, being funny when I was 18 was the only way cute girls would talk to me, whereas Piette is a professional soccer player. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a genuinely funny professional athlete. I’ve met plenty of likable ones, a fair few intelligent ones, and just about all of them like to crack jokes, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met one who’s ever made me laugh out loud on purpose. They must be out there as a demographic certainty, but as a rule humour doesn’t seem to be part of the athlete makeup somehow.
Still, if Piette is willing to learn, I’m happy to help. Drop the picture, first of all. Yes, I know it’s Instagram and pictures are obligatory; the solution to that problem is to pick a less shit form of social media. Let your talking do the talking. It’s possible to make people laugh at pictures of Hitler of course, but that takes a willingness to go for seriously extreme offensiveness and is an advanced technique. Let’s start with the easy stuff.
Second, know your material. The more you know, the easier it is to slip it in by the back door where it can be most pleasing (that’s what she said). When I was discussing your ill-fated joke on Twitter, I Tweeted Tyler Dellow that I wasn’t worried about you glorifying Hitler because “A French guy glorifying the Germans when it looks like they’ll take over Europe? Seems pretty unlikely.” That joke only works because I know about Vichy France, collaborationism, and how a disappointingly large number of French men and women did join the German side in 1940 when it looked like the Nazis would win. It’s one more degree of separatism from the uninspired “lol nazis”-style humour which gets you in newspapers.
Third, the closer you get to implying that Hitler was good, the more trouble you’re in. You don’t have to actually imply that to get into shit, as you are in the process of discovering. Leave no room for doubt and you’ll be better off.
Fourth, the more you try to be funny the easier it becomes. There are a lot of humourless bastards in this world, and when they see you trying to crack a joke their first reaction might be “wait, is he a Nazi?” If you make a habit of slightly transgressive humour, people will know to expect it from you and therefore give it the benefit of the doubt. I see your Twitter feed is mostly fairly straight analysis of soccer games you’re watching, bullshitting with friends, and incidentally a tweet of support for gay basketball player Jason Collins which would have got you shot in Hitler’s Berlin. It’s not very comic, so people do not expect jokes. Tell more and that will change. This will have the welcome benefit of letting you practice your humour before a critical audience, which will make you funnier so your next Hitler joke won’t start an anxious thread on the Voyageurs board.
You may well say that none of this matters, that Piette is a professional athlete and should stay clear of controversy at all times. Fuck that. The upper echelons of the soccer world is populated with overt fascists, complete madmen, and drunk-driving wife-beating sacks of shit who regardless rake in millions of pounds a year. If Piette’s only public relations problem winds up being that he has a sense of humour then he won’t actually have any problems at all.
You may also say that the Nazis are terrible and cannot be joked about at any time. This is a point about which reasonable men have disagreed, both while Hitler was contemporary and now that Hitler’s history. If Piette thinks Hitler was just some European who tried to take over the world like that Napoleon Dynamite dude then he could certainly use a few days with some really good books and that oft-mentioned tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We can argue about whether the Nazis were the most odious regime that has ever existed but they certainly accomplished more in less time than anyone else who attempted to show just what miserable, mean, contemptible beasts human beings can be (I do not say “become”). I happen to think that humour in general is one way we can rise above the animalistic tribalism and superstition which, unchecked, helps lead to the horrors of the Third Reich. You may differ, and I respect that. This is a sensitive topic and the instinct is to approach it with a maximum of tact. But while I don’t doubt that Piette could use education on the atrocities that dominated the middle part of the last century, we ought to trust him to make his own conclusions rather than try to thrust our own upon him. Being holier-than-thou with an 18-year-old does not lead them to approach and respect your point of view, it leads them to resentment.
Maybe Samuel Piette had no idea of the seriousness of the Nazi regime and made what he thought was an innocent comparison to a long-forgotten dead guy. More likely he was trying to use the risqué and transgressive for comic effect and bombed. There’s little doubt that Piette is basically a good kid, no indication that he’s any sort of neo-Nazi, and certainly no room to be sanctimonious.
So farewell then, Paul Stalteri. The Canadian international and star of the English Premier League and German Bundesliga formally announced his retirement today in a Canadian Soccer Association press conference. Stalteri ends his career with one CSA Canadian Player of the Year award (2001), one runner-up (2005) and a Canadian international record 84 caps, 83 starts, and 7,430 minutes. Succeeding Kevin McKenna as Canada’s regular captain in 2007, Stalteri served as Canada’s on-pitch leader for 30 of the final 31 appearances of his international career.
In truth Stalteri has been done for a while. His last meaningful club game was on October 3, 2009 with Borussia Mönchengladbach of the Bundesliga against Borussia Dortmund. Stalteri played 86 minutes in a 1-0 loss. He made a few more appearances with Canada, the last on October 8, 2010 in a friendly against Ukraine, and was on the bench as an emergency substitute for two 2011 friendlies against Greece and Turkey. But his career had been slowly heading downhill even before serious hip problems in 2010 and 2011 forced him into double arthroscopic surgeries. By the spring of 2012 Stalteri was telling the press he was healthy and looking for work; alas, whatever offers Stalteri received weren’t up to his standard. He may feel like a grand old man of Canadian soccer, but in fact Stalteri retires aged only 35.
Even apart from the records, Stalteri’s will live on in Canadian hearts. He may best be remembered, much as he may hate it, for the storied water bottle incident. On September 4, 2004 at Commonwealth Stadium in a World Cup qualifying match against Honduras, Paul Stalteri protested one of the most disgraceful refereeing performances in CONCACAF’s storied history by throwing a water bottle onto the pitch towards referee Benito Archundia. He echoed the outrage of a predominantly pro-Canada 8,000 fans at maybe the most infamous of all CONCACAF screwjobs: Archundia had called a false foul that allowed Amado Guevara to score an 88th-minute equalizing penalty, then disallowed what certainly seemed to be a legitimate winner in stoppage time by Olivier Occean. The toss was caught on Sportsnet’s cameras and, much as we may have rationally disapproved of Stalteri’s dissent, he became a folk hero to thousands of outraged Canadians. Stalteri was suspended for four games; Archundia needless to say remained one of CONCACAF’s most prestigious referees and went on to rob Stalteri and Canada again in the 2007 Gold Cup. Playing for Canada during Stalteri’s career was like that but Stalteri kept answering the call, loyal to the end.
Stalteri could be ferocious. In addition to the water bottle, Stalteri once flipped off his captain Jason deVos in a World Cup qualifier. He saw yellow cards at a brisk rate and was always happy to play physically; the greatest example of the blood-and-guts Canadian player who became a somewhat-unloved stereotype in the early part of the century. But his passion on the field became his greatest asset when combined with his intelligence and skill, bringing him near the very heights of the world game and giving him the cult status on a major German club he retains to this day.
Since Diesel, as he was unanimously nicknamed, was a gentleman off the field, let’s remember that he brought much more than just a temper. Like when Stalteri and even his wife went out of their way to make Canadian supporters feel welcome; Mrs. Stalteri memorably coming into the stands to gladhand the supporters in Edmonton and Seattle. Or how about the chant from the late 2000s? Oh Paul Stalteri, you are the love of my life, oh Paul Stalteri, I’d let you shag my wife, oh Paul Stalteri, I wish I were as hairy as you. Or his role in the famous “Holger’s Heroes” 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup run? Stalteri played every minute of every qualifying match then every minute of the Cup proper, including a blinder in the final against Colombia where his pass to Jeff Clarke set up Carlo Corazzin’s clinching penalty; the one glorious exception to an international career full of frustration and foiled hopes. Or maybe, just maybe, how about playing so well for so long that my generation of Canadian fans still isn’t quite used to a team without him?
Tony Quinn/Canadian Soccer Association
Stalteri belongs on the short-list of all-time great Canadian defenders along with contemporaries Jason de Vos and Kevin McKenna as well as 1986 captain Bruce Wilson. Indeed, his achievements in Europe rank him among the most accomplished Canadian players full stop. I will let the fans of German soccer, of whom there are many in this country, paean his European club career, but his list of overall accomplishments surpasses that of any Canadian player of his generation.
Stalteri was one of the first players on the USISL A-League expansion Toronto Lynx in 1997, a team including familiar names such as a young Dwayne De Rosario, Pat Onstad, Elvis Thomas, Rick Titus, and one-time Vancouver Whitecaps captain Kevin Holness. A 19-year-old Stalteri made his professional debut in the Lynx’s second-ever game, a 4-2 loss in Charleston to the Battery. Not bad, as debuts go; in spite of the unflattering scoreline Stalteri scored in the 27th minute. As a precocious teenage attacker Stalteri was the most dangerous part of the Lynx attack: he bagged against Rochester in May, hit the Rhinos again in July before scoring twice against Montreal and once on Raleigh for a three-game scoring streak, and got yet another against Rochester in the season finale for a total of seven goals in sixteen matches. It wasn’t a huge haul (the leader, a 20-year-old Stern John, had an uncanny 20 goals for the long-forgotten New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers), but from a young, hard-nosed Canadian out of Clemson it got notice.
Outside of Canadian men’s national team circles Stalteri will be best remembered for his time in Germany. He spent two and a half seasons in the Werder Bremen reserves under Thomas Schaaf and then Frank Neubarth without a whit of first team time; his debut came at last on August 12, 2000 against Energie Cottbus, almost six months after he had shocked the world at the 2000 Gold Cup. Also making his Bundesliga debut, for Cottbus, was long-time international comrade Kevin McKenna. But Stalteri came on top in a 3-1 win, playing forward and, for the second straight time, scoring on his debut. Stalteri went on to play 151 times in the league for Werder Bremen over five seasons, taking a leading role in their double of 2004. When Stalteri moved on to Tottenham at the end of 2004-05, he was so respected that fans waved “Danke Paul” signs at his last home match in Bremen.
When Stalteri moved to Tottenham he should have been reaching the peak of his career; sadly, it never came together for him and he was seldom more than a Premier League journeyman; a starter his first year, depth for his remaining seasons in England. Which isn’t to say that Stalteri wasn’t a good player (Canada could use a few Premier League journeymen today) or that he didn’t have his moments, most notably a 93rd-minute winner for Spurs against London rivals West Ham in one of only six appearances on the season (apologies for the unlistenable music).
From Tottenham came a loan to Bolton and the return to Germany which ended his career. At Borussia Mönchengladbach Stalteri played regularly at first, alongside another veteran German-based Canadian in Rob Friend, on a just-promoted team trying to secure its place in the 1. Bundesliga. Mönchengladbach stayed up but Stalteri was not part of their long-term plans. His first season he started 16 of a possible 17 games; the next year he made three first-team appearances, two of which were off the bench, and was clearly welcome to leave any time he wanted. It was an inglorious end to what should have been a fine career, but happily in Canada he will be remembered for better things.
At times in his international career Stalteri got a bad rap from some as an exemplar of the physicality-first game that held Canada back. So often the men’s and women’s national teams played a style where they hoofed the ball out of the back to the strong guy or the quick guy, and as a tough player who took no prisoners and used his shoulders as well as his feet, Stalteri became a target. He never was really a crosser or a playmaker, he could crank lovely shots from distance but showed few tricks, and his defense relied first on getting in the way. As a rule, he couldn’t dribble out of a car park, and his left foot never inspired confidence. Small wonder he was criticized by those who wanted a technical team… the problem is, Stalteri made it work. Attackers, even quite good ones, feared coming down his wing not because he’d spike them in the ankle but because he’d force them outside, keep them off balance, seldom overcommit, and if it got into a shoving battle they’d lose. Stalteri scored for his country and consistently played well if seldom brilliantly because, unlike truly talentless gritty players, he had skill and awareness to underpin his toughness. Even in his last World Cup run the strongest teams in CONCACAF were forced to respect Stalteri, because while he ran clumsily up the right, the ball chugging along in front of him and looking ever-so-tempting a target, the old devil knew every trick in the book and was too happy to give lessons.
Here is Stalteri winning Canada’s opening game in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup on a magisterial display of perseverance and toughness against the Costa Rican defense (as originally tweeted by Daniel Squizzato). One seldom sees goals like this in the highest levels of CONCACAF these days: Stalteri just muscling his way through, succeeding with pure chutzpah and awareness rather than the classic technical skills. But by heavens it works, at least this one time; Canada wound up an improbable last in their group thanks to a 2-0 loss to Cuba. Twice, once when surrounded by the Costa Rican midfield and once when Jason Bent’s attempted through ball is off target, Stalteri is in a position where he has absolutely no right to get a scoring chance. But he gets one anyway, because Stalteri made a living out of fighting through obstacles that a more technically-gifted player would have thrown up his hands at.
Paul Stalteri’s truly great game in Canadian colours came October 15, 2008 at Commonwealth Stadium (how many times Stalteri moved that normally-implacable building!) in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Today we remember that game as Tomasz Radzinski’s immortal swan song, but Stalteri was the non-Radzinski man of the match. You can see glimpses of the implacable #7 in this highlight video, and more than that you can see his fantastic distance shot which struck the crossbar and so nearly gave Canada the greatest of all moral victories. By this match Canada was already effectively out of the World Cup, needing every result to go their way to stand a chance. It had been one of the worst World Cup qualification campaigns in Canadian history, but this one match at least was a highlight, a 2-2 draw with Mexico in a match that Canadian fans still talk about with silly grins on their faces. God, how I wish that Stalteri shot had gone in. Never have I seen a blast which deserved to be a goal more than that one. Radzinski was the hero of the hour, of course, in his second-last match for his adopted country, but under the greatest possible pressure against the toughest opponent, with the entire country writing them off as dead, Stalteri was magnificent.
Stalteri still had a little more international soccer after that great Mexico match. He played the 2009 Gold Cup, one of Canada’s more successful since 2000, and helped the team record a surprisingly-excellent 2-1-0 record in the group stage before dropping a tightly-contested quarter-final to Honduras. It was his last tournament as Canadian captain, and sadly he must have had flashbacks to his 2004 experience in Edmonton. The winning goal came when Stalteri was called for fouling Walter Martinez in the box; Martinez scored the resulting penalty in a 1-0 win. John Molinaro called the decision “criminal”; a look at the video shows why the call will live on in infamy. But this time there were no water bottles, no middle fingers, just a valiant if unsuccessful fight to get back into the game. It was not the sort of game anyone would like remembered as his final competitive international, but it was certainly fitting for a career spent battling the realities of CONCACAF as much as the opponent on the field.
Paul Stalteri was a tough son-of-a-bitch, but unlike most of that type of player in Canadian colours, he brought more than just a bad attitude and some hard tackles. He had the vision and on-field intelligence of a CONCACAF star, and for over a decade our country’s national team was enriched by his presence. You could hardly have asked for a more dedicated player, a more loyal servant, and a more devoted captain. He took a major role in our only men’s championship since 1986, and in an age where we expect to see players complaining about flight arrangements and the inadequacy of their hotels he endured the worst CONCACAF could throw at him while always determinedly coming back for more. This past World Cup qualifying cycle we saw just how much Canada could miss a player like Paul Stalteri, and while we may find someone worthy to succeed him, there will never be a Canadian worthy to replace him.