Dreams of a National (Women’s) Soccer League

By Benjamin Massey · November 21st, 2012 · 3 comments

Government of British Columbia

My greatest dream for Canadian soccer is that one of our billionaires falls in love with the Canadian game. He builds stadiums from coast to coast: Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Sudbury, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Charlottetown, and St. John’s. Pick your favourite eight, ten, or twelve of those if you prefer; this is a dream. Each of those stadiums are modest in capacity (8,000 seats, say), not too fancy, and probably have artificial turf… but they also have roofs, preferably retractable of course but not necessarily, so we could play first-class soccer in the depths of a prairie winter.

This billionaire then starts up a Canadian league on the MLS model: single entity, salary cap, with a fair minimum salary so even the meanest player can make a living but taking a hit on the top end; only the very best players would make over $100,000. Winter schedule; not for Eurosnobbery reasons but because that would minimize competition with MLS and allow the players to focus on national team duty in the summer (and improving the national team is a major reason this is a dream of mine). A salary cap of, say, a million dollars per team would allow a 25-person roster mostly made up of players around the minimum but with a handful of big earners. If you have an eight-team league playing a balanced schedule of 28 games each plus playoffs, then a profit of $71,428.57 per home game allows you to break even on player expenses, and offering a salary of $100,000 would allow you to lure over some world-class players. This could, quickly, become the best soccer league of its type in the world.

No, really. (I may have neglected to mention: in my dream this is a women’s league.)

The Americans announced their new women’s league today, following up on the failures of WUSA and WPS. There will be eight teams from coast to coast and play is expected to begin this coming spring. After two much-hyped disasters the Americans are making all the right noises about “sustainability”[1], and it’s easy to see why, for even a modest league that’s a long-term success will cement the United States’s place at the top of the women’s soccer world.

If you’re interested in improving performance, women’s soccer should offer such a great return on investment without going for MLS levels of support. Professionalism, even among near-elite countries, is often the exception rather than the rule. The Canadian women’s national team, which you may recall just won a fucking bronze medal, had two players playing professionally full-time in 2012 (Rhian Wilkinson and Diana Matheson, both in Norway). Every player in our national pool has to do “coaching sessions” or public appearances to make ends meet; time in travel and glad-handing that could be spent training. Unlike some male athletes, when they go to school they have to get degrees they can earn a living with (Matheson has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Princeton, making her Canada’s best-known microeconomist). All of this is a distraction from what should be their full-time job. The less famous players who represent the future of our national team more than the present are even worse off. “Own the Podium” and the like don’t cut it; that program will split $1.27 million between only 24 players over 2012-13[2]

Bringing professional standards to the full Canadian player pool requires money; full-time professionalism, in other words. Money requires fans. But Canadian women’s soccer has plenty of those.

Five January Olympic qualifying games in Vancouver drew an average crowd of 15,306, compared to six men’s World Cup qualifying games in Toronto with an average of 14,223. 7,514 came to watch a friendly in Moncton this past May. Even the 5,427 at BMO Field for a friendly against China in September of last year, while appalling at the time, would have been perfectly reasonable for an NASL game. The average attendance for Canadian women’s games in Canada for the past five years is 12,586 (nine games, three cities, four friendlies)[3]. The money for an investment is there. Indeed, today the Canadian Soccer Association announced it will finance the salaries of up to sixteen women’s national team players in the American professional league[4][5]. The CSA is not known for being either rich or generous, but they’re making an annual salary commitment that will be well into six figures and may push seven because they expect that, if sixteen of their players are playing and training full-time close to home, they’ll get a return on investment.

There are two reasons why investing in women’s soccer should be attractive to Canadian soccer mavens. One is that, as mentioned above, it’s popular. Casual fans love the Canadian women: they win, which is always helpful, and they have a great public profile thanks to winning personalities and public interaction. The second is that it takes so much less money to make a difference, because the money already in the system is relatively small. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian men’s national team you’d be building infrastructure, bringing in expensive foreign coaches, trying to create comprehensive scouting and coaching networks, and maybe scattering a few $50-million soccer-specific stadiums around the country. If you wanted to invest in the Canadian women, a relatively cheap first step could make all the difference.

Forget my billionaire dream above. Why couldn’t we put teams in Victoria (Royal Athletic Park), Vancouver/Burnaby (Swangard Stadium), Edmonton (Clarke Field with FC Edmonton expansion/Foote Field), Toronto (Lamport Stadium), Montreal (Claude-Robillard), and Moncton (Moncton Stadium) and start a six-team professional league tomorrow? Why not? Why couldn’t we? Yes, it would take an investment, but what an investment it would be if Canada’s current and future national players could come home, play full-time, and be close to hand for John Herdman? We wouldn’t need to worry about the strength as, purely by virtue of bringing in the best Canadian players, many good American players, and foreign nationals who want to play fulltime, this would automatically be one of the best women’s leagues in the world.

Six teams with a salary budget of $1 million each per year. That’s less than the CFL’s salary cap. There’d be travel expenses, of course, but we wouldn’t be asking any owner to lose as much on their women’s team as Tom Fath lost on FC Edmonton in their first year. We’re not swinging for the fences and trying to bring over every Marta or Abby Wambach type (although Christine Sinclair might need a Bobby Hull-style exemption so she could play for the Whitecaps).

WPS and its ilk weren’t able to bring the fans out. That last year their average attendance was just 3,518 (still better than FC Edmonton), although that was for a league everybody knew was dying and previous seasons were better. Would Canadians come for women’s professional soccer? They already do! Did you see BC Place during Olympic qualifying?!

That whole outpouring of support doesn’t need to go to the clubs; half would be more than enough. We’d need NASL numbers for one of the best leagues in the world. The Whitecaps women repeatedly boasted attendances of over 1,000 this summer, and that was a fully amateur sub-playoff team of college students playing a short season at stadiums all around the Lower Mainland[6]. There has never been a fully professional women’s team in Canada, and trying to paint Canada with the US’s brush because WPS was a shambles is the same argument used by those who said Toronto FC could never make it in MLS.

A Canadian national women’s league would have two advantages over the much-ballyhooed “men’s second division”. The first is that the Canadian league wouldn’t be a second division: it would be able to compete with the coming American league, particularly for young, journeyman, and Canadian players, and a North American open cup would make fascinating viewing. It would be one of the best women’s leagues in the world. You wouldn’t have to choose between seeing Hamilton Bumfuck SC in person or Toronto FC on television, because the best soccer would be local.

The second is nationalism. For the men, pride in Canadian soccer is reserved for morons like us; for the women it’s the default. We hear again and again how well the women represented the Maple Leaf in London, how the country had soccer heroes who hailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic and almost everywhere in-between. Canadian women’s soccer belongs to the rank and file, the soccer moms and casual fans who make any professional enterprise work. Moreover, a professional Canadian women’s league would be among the highest levels of it sport. A fan in Moncton would bring his daughter out to see Christine Sinclair and the Whitecaps one weekend, then Sophie Schmidt and the Edmonton Wild Roses would be in town the next, followed by Diana Matheson’s Toronto Blue-and-White or whatever I’m done making up names. A small league could mean that every team had some recognizable Canadian star, to say nothing of some excellent soccer. There’d be a summer break where the best of those players got together and John Herdman went to kick some ass, and their profile would just go up.

Canada meets every fundamental requirement to start a league like this. We have fans in the tens of thousands. We have stadiums which are perfectly suitable, perhaps requiring minor expansion but even in those cases expansion schemes have already been planned and acted upon (Royal Athletic Park was expanded for the U-20 World Cup and of course the fables of expanding Clarke for FC Edmonton have become legend). The game is strong at the grass-roots level. We have elite-level players who could anchor such a league from both an on-field and public relations perspective for years to come. Nothing needs to be built from whole cloth.

Accuse me of optimism if you like. There would be problems: paying for travel, finding qualified coaches, trying to get the support of the professional men’s teams (for if they viewed this women’s league as a threat and tried to crush it we’d have a serious problem). Canadians are not used to coming out for women’s club soccer, but then again they weren’t used to men’s club soccer either once, not so long ago. A few television ads just showing Christine Sinclair ventilating Hope Solo followed by a location and a date would help a lot.

Why not try? Something like this has never been attempted in Canada, even on a small scale; professional women’s soccer in this country has always consisted of either sending players abroad or making them do three-hour drives to earn gas money at community coaching clinics. Rather than the same old proposals for a national men’s league or a U-23 league or rambling about “the CHL model” and trying to wring incremental improvements out of the men’s game so the nation will grow to love it, why not revolutionize the women’s game Canada already loves? The money involved, relative to the boatloads required to get anywhere in the men’s game, is small. Greg Kerfoot could run a few seasons of a six-team league himself if he was in the mood.

Sometimes it seems that as a soccer country we lack ambition. Canadians rant and rave and slave like dogs at trying to go the extra mile for what we have, and countless people smarter and harder-working than I am have gone elbows-deep in proverbial muck to reform the Canadian soccer system. Yet we shy away from revolution. We have never attempted to become a world leader. A Canadian professional women’s league would give us that chance at an uncommonly low price. It would require a willingness to take risks, and that’s a willingness we’ve never shown in soccer. But there’s no better time to start.

(notes and comments…)

The Folly of Received Wisdom

By Benjamin Massey · November 12th, 2012 · 4 comments

Canadian Soccer Association

This morning I spent part of my holiday Monday reading a post by Justin Connolly on Red Nation Online[1]. I read it because Jason deVos linked to it on Twitter saying it “reeks of ignorance”[2] and, frankly, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I didn’t think the article reeked but I have some experience with awful sports teams. Connolly starts by saying “few sports fans in the world that have endured the run of incompetence like those who follow the Canadian men’s national soccer team” but, as an Edmonton Oilers fan, I am one of the few. If Canada was like the Oilers we would have lost to Puerto Rico, failed to get out of the second round, and fired Paul Fenwick while the CSA insisted everything was fine. Then there would have been a lockout. Say what you will about the Canadian Soccer Association, and God knows I have, but they acknowledge there are critical problems and they must be fixed.

Which isn’t to say Connolly’s article was correct. He starts off weakly, writing about “teflon coach” Stephen Hart whose failings were apparently glossed over (yes, the coach who was fired in disgrace after one World Cup qualifying campaign with the near-unanimous agreement of the Canadian soccer world but who also not crapped on by the media once he was gone). Having accused Canada of making excuses for Hart, Connolly makes excuses for Canada by saying we’d be excellent if players like Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman, Junior Hoilett, Daniel Fernandes, Asmir Begovic, and “budding defensive star” Steven Vitoria had just played for us.

It’s not unfair to say it “reeks of ignorance”, though, when that’s just the same old Canadian soccer fan attitude. “Fire the coach, blame the staff, and also it’s not our fault.” Anyone who hangs out with our soccer fans has heard it: it’s the default stance of message board posts, of nine out of ten pub talks. The only thing missing was a discourse on how the new head coach has to be a bright up-and-comer who “knows CONCACAF” and has a history of development talent but wants to come to Canada and earn their reputation.

What brought me up short was the criticism of Tony Fonseca. At the time I didn’t approve of Fonseca’s hiring as technical director. I think the Canadian Soccer Association needed new ideas and that Fonseca, as a long-time CSA insider, wasn’t the man to provide them. More than that, I was terrified that the CSA started soliciting candidates for technical director back in July[3] with an application deadline of August 3, 2012 and, after three months, wound up with Stephen Hart’s right-hand man, as if either that long search was fairly pointless or there just weren’t many qualified candidates. Since then respectable pundits have said Fonseca was a voice for the right sort of change in the CSA. His coaching record in Vancouver was unimpressive, but I have been reminded he was responsible for bringing up a lot of local talent with the Vancouver Whitecaps, starting with bona fide A-League stars like Jason Jordan and Steve Kindel. That’s just the skill you want from your technical director. I still have reservations about Fonseca but am willing to give him a chance.

Connolly comes from a different perspective, one I find harder to reconcile with but one which also speaks for many Canadian fans. I will quote his criticism at length.

Which leads the how the CSA failed to get the Technical Director hiring right.

Tony Fonseca may be a great individual and a class act just like Stephan Hart. Fonseca is a former international with Portugal that once plied his trade with historic Benfica. His coaching experience however is far less glamorous involved exclusively in Canada with Vancouver and then the CSA.

This important hire should have been made so people across Canada knew about it. [. . .]

Instead of using the hiring of a key position, long noted by many as a vital to the growth of the game, they announced it the same day our American cousins were electing their president.

In political terms, they buried it.

The “buried” Fonseca has already appeared on TSN FC with Jason deVos and Luke Wileman[4] and FAN 590 with Jeff Blair[5]. He was written about by de Vos[6], Gerry Dobson[7], and Ben Rycroft for CBC.ca[8]. The hiring was well-received by blogs, with Waking the Red[9] and, of course, Red Nation Online[10] bringing original content that American election day. The CSA sent out a press release and held a well-subscribed conference call hours before election results started rolling in; the same level of attention they give to pretty much everything, and have since made Fonseca available to the press. The news leaked on the Monday anyway. If this was a burying it was the most incompetent on record.

Fonseca’s coaching record is not unassailable. His coaching of Canada’s U-23s in Olympic qualifying, in spite of a famous win over the United States, was undistinguished. While he ran the Whitecaps from February 2002 to the end of the 2004 A-League season[11], his achievements were modest: a conference final appearance and a league semi-final appearance, three successful qualifications for the playoffs in three years but no great regular season records and no championships. It was a tumultuous period for the Whitecaps: Fonseca’s coaching run overlapped with David Stadnyk giving up ownership of the team and the desperate fight for a new owner that eventually led to Greg Kerfoot. But all the same, Fonseca’s onfield accomplishments must be considered “fair, but not great.” If he is remembered well in Vancouver it is because of the success he got from local players and because his successor, Bob Lilley, was the most hated Whitecaps coach until the Tom Soehn days.

But the argument isn’t that Fonseca isn’t qualified because of his coaching, but that he isn’t qualified because of his Canadianness. Despite being Portuguese he is, in almost every meaningful sense, a “Canadian coach”, and that in of itself seems to disqualify him. I’m not just trying to pick on Connolly here for we see the same argument made by Canadian soccer fans from coast to coast; Connolly is just an unusually eloquent writer with an unusually large platform to promote some very common views for which he cannot be held responsible.

They’re also views I once agreed with. Here is an article from July written, by me, with the not-so-subtle headline “Canada’s Technical Director Should Be Anything but Canadian”[12]:

Canada needs foreign talent. Yes, a foreign technical director would cost money and come with risks: will he just flee back home, job undone? But ambition isn’t cheap and it isn’t risk-free, and “technical director” is an efficient area to spend money. If you have somebody at the top who can provide expert guidance and training for the most important members of your technical program, that can be far more helpful than any national team head coach or other more public but more expensive hirings.

It’s a delusion to think Canada’s men’s national team can pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The trouble is that there simply isn’t the expertise in this country to develop the team we need to qualify for World Cups. There isn’t an active Canadian who can say he’s been a steady winner at the professional level, or who can boast of a record developing players or staff. Our professional clubs are making great progress training young talent but even they found it necessary to bring in foreign heads for their academies. The Canadian Soccer Association, with such a vast responsibility and so much more work to do, is certainly no exception.

I hope you see why I’m trying not to bash Connolly too much, for very recently I was on the same side of the argument. I come by my conversion honestly.

Name Age Left Canada At Pro Debut With
Attakora, Nana 23 23 Toronto
Bernier, Patrice 33 23 Montreal
Edwini-Bonsu, Randy 22 20 Vancouver
Henry, Doneil 20 N/A Toronto
Hirschfeld, Lars 34 19 Edmonton (indoor)
Hutchinson, Atiba 29 21 Toronto Lynx
Morgan, Ashtone 20 N/A Toronto
Stinson, Matt 20 N/A Toronto
Teibert, Russell 19 N/A Vancouver

To the right is a list of the players currently in our national pool who I consider “developed in Canada”. You may argue with most of them. Lars Hirschfeld, the elder statesman, spent a couple years in Germany from 1998 to 2000 but was otherwise Canadian-based from childhood until 2002, when as a 23-year-old he had his shot with Tottenham. His professional debut was with, depending on how you’re counting, the old indoor Edmonton Drillers or the second-division Vancouver Whitecaps. He’s Canadian-developed to me, but you may disagree. Atiba Hutchinson was in Canada until he was 21, playing Canadian Soccer League and A-League soccer before moving abroad; he was obviously well above A-League level and was soon overseas but, again, spent his prime development years in Canada. Patrice Bernier spent a year in American college soccer but was primarily developed in Canada; he was an elite hockey player who spent two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League[13]. Randy Edwini-Bonsu came up through the Whitecaps Residency and played for the first team but couldn’t stick and had to go to the Finnish second division. The only players who aren’t arguable cases are the young ones.

Every player on this list is either on the downside of their careers (Hirschfeld, Bernier), are too early in their professional careers to call up regularly (Attakora, Edwini-Bonsu, Henry, Morgan, Stinson, Teibert), or is Atiba Hutchinson (Hutchinson). Of the six young players, odds are most of them will fade into obscurity because that’s just what happens. As Canada’s best player since deVos’s prime Hutchinson alone lends this list gravitas but he is an unusual case: a fantastic talent who somehow slipped through the cracks, joined the Lynx as a 20-year-old, and immediately made everybody say “that’s it, he’s too good for us.” And the fact that, from the entire Canadian senior national team pool, I found nine players who could by any definition qualify as “developed in Canada” and four of those nine are under 21 is rather shocking.

This is for many reasons. One of them is that there is a shortage of qualified coaching in Canada relative to our size (meaning both “population” and “area”). A kid in Fort McMurray, however talented, has next-to-no chance of becoming a first-class soccer player, for there is unlikely to be a good coach within a four-hour drive of his house. When we say that Canada needs some foreign impresario this is usually one of the reasons: there just aren’t enough talented soccer minds in Canada to train the vast next generation of coaches we need.

The trouble is that the technical director job is such a far-reaching one that there’s more to it than just technical expertise. We’ve been perfectly capable of developing elite players like Hutchinson domestically, and there have been no fewer than three fully professional clubs in Canada every year since 1997. Our elites have had no trouble getting access to the best teams in Europe. But it’s never tied together. Kids have bounced up the ranks of youth clubs, going from coach to coach, club to club, hoping to be noticed by a scout or sign on professionally.

Lately the provinces, the clubs, and the CSA have improved matters, but there is no substitute for a high authority with the knowledge and the mandate to tie together disparate regional strategies. There’s no reason that high authority can’t be a former Canadian coach; indeed, somebody like Fonseca will have a better understanding of the unique world of Canadian soccer than a foreign voice however talented. The technical director doesn’t need to be somebody who can “win in CONCACAF”, nor necessarily even somebody who is a great teacher, but somebody who can finally start getting our players from cradle to national team within the Canadian soccer system.

I’m still not convinced Fonseca was the best man for the job, but that isn’t because of his Canadian coaching roots. Were the CSA to appoint somebody like Dwight Lodeweges with extensive Canadian experience but also superior technical qualifications, I’d have been thrilled partially because of his time in Canada. The best soccer mind in the world would be useless if he didn’t have the knowledge and the connections to give Canada a consistent, useful platform for player and coaching development. On the other hand, somebody could be a mediocre coach but if they were able to create a structure which gave Canadian players and coaches the best chance to develop in this country, they would be the greatest technical director in our history.

The idea that Canada must always go abroad for help is tempting; after all, we’re a weak soccer nation. But it’s one of those ideas that have gained currency among fans without sufficient challenge. It’s become accepted wisdom based on “we need to do something different, and this is something different.” The one time Canada brought in a foreign technical director, England’s Richard Bate, he fled within a year having achieved absolutely nothing[14], but this is just one bad apple while the failure of any ill-chosen Canadian is proof we need a foreign hand.

Over the years Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact teams staffed primarily with Canadians, often local ones, and as often coached by them, have won second-division championships. We’ve produced professional coaches, good teams, and excellent players; again, our best active soccer star played entirely within Canada until he was 21. We all know that Canada has some expertise but faces unique challenges because of geography, demography, and history. Yet every time a major vacancy in this country comes open fans shout that we need an outsider to show us what we’re doing, preferably that young guy we’ve all heard of and who develops great players while knowing CONCACAF.

There’s no doubt that Canada has much to learn from other soccer nations and we shouldn’t hesitate to bring over outside talent where we think it can help us. The work, however, needs to be done on a low level: teaching our community coaches that there’s more to the game than athleticism, that there’s more to youth development than trying to win. The job of a technical director is to improve the game from the highest strategic perspective, not to personally teach every coach his business. That’s a job which can as easily be done by a Canadian, one who knows the landscape, as anyone. Dragging in a European or Latin American just because they are an outsider is how you wind up with Aron Winter and Mo Johnston.

The sort of lazy thinking which brings us “we need a foreigner!” as a knee-jerk response is the same lazy thinking which says we’d be fine if only the traitors had played for us. It’s the same lazy thinking which just shouts “reform!” without considering the nature or the objective of that reform, that wants to sack the coach for bad results without thinking of anyone better (or hire the coach in the first place despite an underwhelming resume because “the players will play for him”). I’ve been as guilty as this sort of thinking as anyone, and I’m sure some of you can point out other examples where I’m part of the problem. We all are, from time to time, and we all need to check each other’s assumptions.

The one sure way to make sure Canadian soccer doesn’t get any better is if we don’t critically analyze all this received wisdom. “Everybody knows” these sorts of lazy assumptions, has known them for years, and look where it’s gotten us.

(notes and comments…)

Valerio Oh Oh Oooooh…

By Benjamin Massey · May 4th, 2010 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

This is (probably) Valerio Gazzola, the new head coach of our men’s U-20 national soccer team, replacing the promoted Tony Fonseca.

I can hear you protesting. “Hey, Lord Bob! You may not like the guy, but that’s no reason to pick such an unflattering picture scanned off the side of a milk carton. Show some journalistic integrity for once, you hack.”

Naah, I grabbed this picture straight off of the Canadian Soccer Association’s website, in the actual press release they used to announce this hire. I can’t blame them for having such a lousy picture, really. After all, where’s Valerio Gazzola been for the past, oh, thirteen years or so? The CSA tells us he was “technical director” at something called “ARS Laval” and that in the last decade he’s coached at “Dollard”, “Monteuil”, and “Lac St-Louis”. I have never heard of any of those organizations. I do know that they are all comprehensive Quebec youth setups with really ugly websites (although ARS Laval at least has a generic WordPress template rather than trying to get creative). Some of them advertise “high-level” intercity competition, which is nice, I guess?

I’m not saying these are awful youth setups. Remember, I’ve never heard of any of them. I’m just saying, uh, we’re hiring our U-20 head coaches from the ranks of mediocre metro Montreal academies now?

Ah, but I forget myself. Gazzola is also two-time head coach of the Montreal Impact, from 1994 to 1997 and from 2000 to 2001. But those were very different days: when Gazzola started with the Impact the league was still called the American Professional Soccer League and was a far less professional outfit than the USL Division One and North American Soccer Leagues we’ve grown to know and tolerate. To give you an idea how long ago Gazzola’s glory days were, the 1997 USISL A-League featured only three organizations still active in the second division (Montreal, the Rochester Raging Rhinos, and the Vancouver 86ers), one that’s moved up (the Seattle Sounders), and a few others still going in lower divisions, mostly the USL PDL but occasionally USL Division Two. Expectations were far lower, teams were generally worse, and attendance was even more erratic.

Gazzola won the last ever APSL championship and three A-League regular season titles, but playoff success in the A-League eluded him. Gazzola’s return to the slowly improving A-League in 2000 was calamitous as the Impact had the two of the three worst seasons in their history: in 2000 they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and finished behind the Toronto Lynx for the first time in their history coming in fourth in the seven-team Northeast Division. The Impact were once again fourth in the division and out of the playoffs in 2001 and Gazzola got his marching orders mid-way through the season, replaced by Nick De Santis who began the modern era for the Impact and the A-League.

This is not Gazzola’s first spin with the national youth teams; he’s been in on the U-17 team and was the assistant coach for Canada U-20 for a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2009 Jeux de la Francophonie. That’s probably exactly why somebody with no relevant coaching experience since Ali Ngon was a promising rookie is in charge of the future of our national setup.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Canadian Players Convicted in Match-Fixing Scandal

By Benjamin Massey · December 12th, 2009 · 2 comments

You must have heard of it. Playing an obscure match, Canada has been dogged by a match-fixing scandal. What began as a simple conspiracy of big Asian bettors spiraled out of control to include four prominent members of the Canadian men’s national team, including its best midfielder and its best striker. In fact…

No, no, get off the phone to Ali Gerba. I’m not talking about the Macedonia – Canada friendly that put the fix in fixture. That appears to just have been some small-time stuff by a standard corrupt FIFA referee. Oh, no, I’m going into the vault of history. I’m talking about the 1986 Merlion Cup.

You’ve forgotten about it? Yeah, that’s not news. It was twenty-three years ago, after all, but it destroyed the Canadian national team. Canada had come off their first qualification to the FIFA World Cup earlier in the year and were favoured to win the tournament in Singapore, which took place against a few minor nations and ‘B’-level national teams. Only a narrow 1-0 loss to China August 31 prevented Canada from owning the round robin stage: the goal by Ma Lin was the only time Canada conceded while they scored ten times. The semi-final, however, would be a tense affair, with Canada taking on the North Koreans after mustering only a 0-0 draw in the round robin.

Who knows what the truth is in incidents like this, when all parties are of course looking out for themselves? Some of the players have admitted their guilt to a greater or lesser degree in the decades since, but at the time only one even murmured about taking a bribe: midfielder Paul James, Globe and Mail soccer writer and winner of forty-seven national caps. James said that he was playing cards with four fellow members of the national team when they approached him with the scheme. The five would divide a bribe worth a total of $100,000. In exchange, Canada would throw the semi-final against the North Koreans, which they were favoured to win.

Canada, who had conceded one goal to the Chinese so far in the tournament, lost 2-0. But Paul James was not involved. His conscience had gotten the better of him. James had given his share back to the other four and, more than that, had reported the affair to friend, teammate, and eventually fellow Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer Randy Regan. A nervous Regan, rather than going to his manager or the Canadian Soccer Association, asked Bruce Wilson for advice. Wilson had just retired from international football after fifty-one caps and captaining the 1986 World Cup team and, perhaps because he was out of the dressing room and now had nothing to fear, it was Wilson who finally reported up the chain. He told manager Tony Waiters and soon the Canadian Soccer Association was involved. The scandal was on.

Paul James would soon escape the cloud that lingered over him thanks to his obvious act of integrity. The other four would not be so lucky.

Chris Chueden, a striker, was twenty-five years old and a nobody on the international stage. A former player for the Montreal Manic, Chueden made his debut at the Merlion Cup and made all six of his caps in that tournament, scoring his only national goal against Indonesia. His reviews at the tournament were not terrific but certainly not bad until the North Korea match, where he (and many of the other Canadians). Worse players than Chueden have made careers with Canada, and striker would be a position of weakness for Canada until the years of Paul Peschisolido and Carlo Corazzin.

Burnaby native Hector Marinaro was another Merlion Cup debutante. He had made his first three international appearances in Singapore in 1986, including the North Korean game. A mediocre player, Marinaro roamed North American football for over a decade, playing for enough teams to make Ali Gerba blush.

Dave Norman was the first veteran to be tainted by the scandal. He had debuted for Canada in 1983 at the age of twenty-one and played in the World Cup, scoring his only goal in a 2-1 victory over Ghana in 1985. A hard-nosed defensive midfielder of some repute, Norman was a success domestically as well, being omnipresent for the first incarnation of the Vancouver Whitecaps as well as the later Vancouver 86ers, not to mention a go-round with the legendary Winnipeg Fury in 1987. But he came clean, in time, and was not the greatest casualty of the scandal.

The true loss from all this, the man who Canadian soccer has mourned ever since, ought to have been a white knight, somebody whose name could go down in legend. For he was not only one of the few Canadians to be playing professional outdoor soccer in 1986, he was doing so in the very good Belgian first division. He was Canada’s top striker by far. And he had scored the greatest goal in the history of Canadian soccer, getting a knee to a ball off the frozen pitch in St. John’s, Newfoundland, one fateful night in September 1985, pushing it past a Honduran goalkeeper, and sending Canada to the World Cup. He scored twelve times for his country and remains to this day the sixth-leading goalscorer in Canadian national history.

His name was Igor Vrablic, and at the time of the Merlion Cup he was twenty years old.

Some of the other players, you could see why. The North American Soccer League had recently collapsed. The Canadian Soccer League had not yet risen to replace it. Canadians had to play for whatever money they could get and in whatever cities would have them. Most of the 1986 World Cup team played indoor soccer, for that was the only way they could get a paycheque. But Vrablic! He was a success in Europe and was bringing in larger paycheques than most of his teammates at a far younger age. The future of Canadian soccer as a sport was hazy, but Vrablic, almost alone on that 1986 team, could look forward to his future.

He was a patriot, too. Born abroad to Slovak immigrants, he was eligible for Czechoslovakia and they certainly would have had him, but he chose Canada. He had played his heart out for his country in a day when love was the only reason to do so; when there was no motivation for flying across an ocean to stamp on a frozen pitch and try to send your homeland to the World Cup except the sheer joy of doing so. But for a share of $100,000, he threw it all away.

Twenty-one years old. Smarter people have done stupider things at that age, but not many. It ended his Canadian career in a heartbeat. The European leagues, then sensitive to match-fixing rumours after the Italian Totonero scandals earlier in the decade, wouldn’t have pissed on Vrablic if he was on fire. Unable to catch on in Europe, he eventually returned to Canada where, at last report, he works in Ontario keeping a low profile and avoiding soccer.

So excuse me if I don’t get excited about a referee rigging a meaningless friendly. Because this is match fixing.

Grass (and Argos) at BMO!

By Benjamin Massey · November 30th, 2009 · 1 comment

Of course the widespread rumours of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts wanting to play at BMO Field are unwelcome. Of course. These are the same Toronto Argonauts who put the future of the Youth World Cup in jeopardy by backing out of a stadium at York University at the last minute (costing the taxpayers of Ontario $15 million in lost finance from the school), who previously dithered over a soccer-football stadium at Varsity Stadium until it was killed, and who contributed zero cents to the construction of BMO Field. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment put their money where their mouth was and financed much of the stadium’s construction. They also paid for the grass pitch being installed. In short, they did their job. As a result, the Argonauts will get to destroy that lovely grass pitch being installed at such expense.

Bluntly, the Argonauts can go fuck themselves, and I don’t even like Toronto FC.

Now, a few folks such as Onward‘s Ben Knight are taking the logical approach: the Argonauts will never play at BMO Field and here’s why. Most of the reasons centre around the fact that BMO Field would be a truly awful CFL venue and the league would need to bend over backwards to approve the Argonauts playing there. Unfortunately, this argument misses one key fact: we’re not talking about the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, we’re talking about the Toronto Argonauts. The CFL’s Marquee Franchise, in spite of the fact that they’re miserable off the field and worse on it and probably have the smallest following of any CFL franchise. The Argonauts are a classic example of the Toronto-centrism that we in the rest of Canada rail against so ineffectively, in that the CFL has always been willing to grab its ankles and spread ’em when the Argos come calling.

Besides, the sanctity of CFL field dimensions has always been up for discussion. As an Edmonton Eskimos fan, I can tell you in vivid detail about the truncated corners at Commonwealth Stadium and the touchdowns that haven’t counted when a receiver ran a route onto the running track; the corners at Percival Molson Stadium in Montreal share this defect. The ill-fated CFL USA experiment (I believe it is constitutionally mandated that it be referred to as “the ill-fated CFL USA experiment”)  saw absolutely everybody except the San Antonio Texans playing on non-regulation field sizes. Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, home of the Memphis Mad Dogs, had nine-yard end zones.

Would the Argonauts be going as far as petitioning the government if they didn’t have some assurance from the CFL they’d be able to play there? Government lobbying is neither cheap nor effortless. Either somebody at CFL HQ has told the Argonauts that they’ll make BMO Field work or they’re using BMO Field as leverage. But leverage for what? The Argonauts are up for sale, of course, but they have a buyer in BC Lions owner David Braley. Their rent deal at SkyDome is as favourable as physically possible, and SkyDome’s significantly higher capacity means less of a cap on Argonaut revenues (their average attendance is higher than BMO Field’s capacity). Ben Knight suggests that the Argonauts are trying to bait Rogers, owners of SkyDome and the Toronto Blue Jays, into buying the team. But given the lack of funding and enthusiasm Rogers has shown to their existing sports empire since Ted Rogers’s death, there is a certain quixotic air over such a quest.

Being a cynic, I think that the Argonauts’ desire to move into BMO Field is sincere. They want to play on grass (only Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton has a natural grass surface among current CFL venues). They’re hoping for a Molson Stadium effect, where the Montreal Alouettes moved from cavernous Olympic Stadium to a small university stadium and increased both atmosphere and profit. Although they pay no rent at SkyDome, they’d prefer to avoid the inevitable overhead costs of playing there because they’re losing a million billion dollars every year.

As a general rule, I hate publicly funded stadia, but BMO Field was done as properly as possible. Private enterprise (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) kicked in much of the construction and maintenance costs. The field was set aside for community use, and when grass was required and community use was no longer possible the government forced MLSE to construct an adequate replacement.  The government retains ownership of BMO Field rather than just making it a gift to the mighty teachers’ pension plan. Plus, it was of course built in part for our Canadian national teams, a public enterprise if ever there was one. Now, though, we see the inevitable downside: Toronto FC is not master of its own domain. It operates at the sufferance of bodies that have little stake in its success. The euphoric joy at being allowed to pay for a decent playing surface can quickly be overwhelmed by the horror of political masters helping out one of their other interests. Until Toronto FC plays in a stadium paid for and owned by the club (current estimate: never), its mere operation will always be lingeringly uncertain, and its success will always come with the lingering chance of betrayal.

If life was fair, the only way the Toronto Argonauts would get into BMO Field would be with tickets. But life, and more particularly government, is not fair, and the joy of “grass at BMO!” will be replaced by the deadening pain of all that money spent and a surface that is still completely unsuitable for world-class football, while a less successful franchise frolics through the stadium they tried to destroy.

Other perspectives: Ben Knight’s article linked above, Duane Rollins, squizz the Some Canadian Guy, and Duane Rollins again.

A Thought for the Future

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2009 · No comments

I’m sitting here, at 12:42 in the Pacific morning, with a bottle of Wiser’s in me, watching New Zealand lead Bahrain 1-0.

You know what? In four years, that’ll be us.

Come back with me to 2006. The Gold Cup triumph is two yaers in our past. Holger Osieck has officially failed. The Frankallop Yalop era is a hideous miasma of favouritism and failure. There are no youth academies, no professional sides above USL-1 level and the three we have there are strictly local in outlook and ambition. The national team is a punchline. The Canadian Soccer Association? A land of infighting and provincial politics.

Today, we have Toronto FC, the great professional success story. We have the Vancouver Whitecaps academy system creating genuine prospects from whole cloth and both Toronto and the Impact moving to emulate them. The national team has fewer superstars but more depth than it has ever imagined, and instead of the big names with small price tags we’ve brought back the era of foreign-born managers with ambitious minds and the respect of the players. The CSA is scheduling friendlies and building the game, and even if there is that provincial infighting Peter Montopouli is perhaps the single best thing ever to happen to Canadian soccer.

Huge strides in three years! We are light years ahead, from top to bottom, of where we were. And the process is acceleration. We were unlucky to do as badly as we did in this qualification cycle,  but fofr the 2014 cycle I firmly believe that will reverse itself.

Call me an optimist. But watching New Zealand this morning, it’s hard not to be one.

Women: Not Just For Ironing Shirts Anymore?

By Benjamin Massey · October 12th, 2009 · No comments

Where’s your father,
where’s your father,
where’s your father, referee?
You don’t have one,
you’re a bastard,
you’re a bastard, referee.

Perfectly above board!

Where’s your girlfriend,
where’s your girlfriend,
where’s your girlfriend, referee?
You don’t have one,
you’re a wanker,
you’re a wanker, referee.

So far, so good!

Where’s your penis,
where’s your penis…

WHOA! Stop right there!

Canadian football fandom can be remarkably schizophrenic sometimes, and a minor sideplot is doing a good job illustrating it. In a week that’s seen Toronto FC playing for its playoff lives against Antonio Ribeiro and Frank Yallop, Asmir Begovic becoming Fredo Corleone, and Montreal taking on Vancouver for all the marbles, the incomparable Two Canadian Guys and Ben Knight Talking About Soccer and the stalwart Andrew Bates of the 24th Minute have both spent time on Impact – Whitecaps referee Carol Anne Chenard, her lack of a ‘Y’ chromosome, and how much that really totally doesn’t matter at all seriously so why are we even talking about it.

I don’t often notice referees, but I tended to notice Chenard in USL-1 and Voyageurs Cup matches because (let’s face it) she has boobies. And I think she’s a fine referee; the Voyageurs Cup was dying for good refereeing and most of the good calls came courtesy Chenard. Saturday night was not her best, though; the red card against Martin Nash was well-earned and it transpired that Peter Byers’s goal was legitimate, but she seemed to struggle calling fouls consistently. This wasn’t an awfully officiated match, but it wasn’t perfect and a few tough-if-accurate calls went against the home team, which is always going to draw interest.  Bates and Knight were concerned that Chenard would be getting more sledging than usual because of her gender – Bates, a card-carrying Southsider, provides an anecdote of a few Southsiders on Saturday trying to start a chant impugning Chenard for her gender and expresses gratitude that it failed.

Now, I’m going to state the obvious so bear with me. Of course Chenard being a woman has no bearing on her competence as a referee. I think we’ve moved past the nineteenth century. No more than ten, maybe twenty percent of sports doctors still think that a woman will lapse into feminine hysterics when confronted with a tough foul in the box (forgive the expression). Knight was correct to say that on the Canadian Guys podcast, and he was also correct when he added that no sensible fan would pick their referees based on race, either. That sort of thing is reprehensible and if somebody in a league office kicks Chenard off a refereeing crew because she’s a woman, that guy should be buried under the north goal at BMO Field when they put the grass in.

What we’ve seen regarding Chenard over the last few days is once again revealing an odd contradiction in football society. Many supporters pride themselves on being anti-authoritarian and working class. When the Whitecaps and the City of Burnaby asked the Southsiders to pretty please not set flares or smoke at Swangard Stadium, the reaction on the Southsiders forum could be summed up as “you’re not the boss of me.” Half the fun of being a supporter is, to quote a shopworn line of Mr. Knight’s, “ten thousand people chanting the F word” – to say things en masse that would get you punched in the testicles if you said them to somebody’s face. So it’s always seemed peculiar to me that football and supporter’s culture draws this neat little dividing line between what is good offensive and what is bad offensive.

My problem is when fans are criticized for bellowing chants about a referee’s gender. We have no problem with stands criticizing the referee’s parentage or marital status. Giving the goalkeeper a “you fat bastard!” is practically de rigeur in Southsider culture. When you chant at somebody on the pitch for being overweight, you’re not submitting a thesis that fat people are drains on society who couldn’t call an offside correctly because they’d be distracted by the smell of hot dogs. To quote the Godfather trilogy for the second post consecutively, it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.

I’d never see Carol Anne Chenard at a coffee shop and say “your refereeing is as bad as your parallel parking”, but, then, I’d never grab Bill Gaudette one-on-one and say “you fat bastard, Brett shagged your wife.” The problem with sexism (or racism or any other form of discrimination) in football isn’t yelling things from the stands that might hurt somebody’s feelings, it’s the guy on the 24th Minute post linked above who said that his teammates wouldn’t respect a female referee because of her gender. It’s not a guy who’s had a few beers yelling that the Algerian player is a terrorist while he’s trying to take a goal kick, it’s the guy who’s perfectly sober saying that he doesn’t want one of “them” on his team. The issue isn’t somebody saying “you like it in the ass!” to an opposing striker. The issue is a manager saying that if somebody who actually likes it in the ass is in his dressing room it’ll upset chemistry, and the ignorant players who make it true.

Carol Anne Chenard is a professional referee and a good one. That’s what matters. If she fucks up and I’m in the stands, I will yell everything I can think of at her. That’s not. If you honestly have a problem with that but are totally fine with all the other invective hurled from the stands, you should really re-evaluate things.

Wait, There's a Dominic Imhof?!?

By Benjamin Massey · May 27th, 2009 · 7 comments

I consider myself a pretty big fan of Canadian football. I like to think that I know a thing or two about the guys who don the Maple Leaf. I could pick Andrea Lombardo out on the street (and I could pick him out if he was on Adam Street, but that’s really none of my business). I can tell the Hoilett brothers apart, and I’m not sure their mother can do that. I even recognized Dale Mitchell when he was making me a smoothie at the Mayfair Mall Orange Julius.

So take it for what it’s worth when I say who the hell is Dominic Imhof?

The latest callup for our friendly Saturday against Cyprus, Imhof is the brother of 1.Bundesliga star midfielder Daniel Imhof, which appears to be his main qualification for the men’s national team. He’s also a fullback and possibly the best player for FC Tuggen, a team in the Swiss third division. There’s a Swiss third division? And we’re pulling players out of it to prepare for the Gold Cup? Did we suddenly become Moldova when I wasn’t looking?

While I’m all for developing promising young talent in a friendly, Imhof is twenty-seven years old. How many twenty-seven-year-old Swiss third division defenders do you know that went on to become the next Franz Beckenbauer. A few sites around the Internet suggest that Imhof also holds Swiss citizenship, but did we really worry about having to cap-tie him? What’s next, calling up the long-lost De Guzman brother and 39-year-old Scarborough pipefitter Ted De Guzman? Asking Bob Lenarduzzi to tug on a jersey and a mullet wig and come for another runout? Call up Kenny Stamatopoulos? Oh, Christ, they did that too?

Now, we knew this was going to be a pain in the ass of a friendly to get players for. It doesn’t fall on a FIFA-approved friendly date and clubs were always going to be reluctant to let players go. Promising youngsters like David Edgar and Asmir Begovic were question marks as Edgar tries to find a new ride with his contract expiring and Begovic tries to crack a Premier League roster for next season. Skilled veterans like Tomasz Radzinski and the Imhof we all thought was getting called up often had other commitments and, frankly, better things to do than run out against Cyprus. Injuries were knocking out our share, with Gerba, Friend, David Hoilett, and others on the limp. Frankly, I’m amazed we got as many names as we did – Stalteri, De Guzman, and McKenna are all making the trip, among others.

And there’s a few good kids out there. I’m pumped up to see Nik Ledgerwood. Calling Tyler Hemming across the ocean from the USL-1 seems bizarre but he’s a good young player. Issey Nakajima-Ferran and Jaime Peters were both overdue to make their returns to the national team. But first Stamatopoulos and Tossaint RIcketts, and now this? Are there really no other Canucks left? If I was some random Canadian playing in the Icelandic ninth junior reserve division and Stephen Hart didn’t at least call me I’d be pretty pissed off right now!

So, Stephen Hart, Eh?

By Benjamin Massey · April 19th, 2009 · No comments

It’s Stephen Hart for interim manager of the men’s team. Not a bad choice, and if we were going to take an interim manager Hart would be my choice. Let’s not forget that I’m the guy who called Hart “the only plausible candidate“. We can go ahead and forget that I’ve spent pretty much every millisecond since then predicting Tony Fonseca, though.

Unfortunately, apparently “Stephen Hart” is French for “long-term solutions cost money”. You’re really going back to the interim tag? Really? After the World Cup consequences of switching from Hart to Mitchell were so catastrophic? Really? I understand that the CSA is under heavy financial pressure, only partially of their own making. But if you’re completely unable to afford a proper manager in 2009, what are the odds you’ll be able to bring in a big name in 2010?

If you’re going to go with Stephen Hart, then by god go with Stephen Hart. Give him a two-year contract and the keys to the car. Let him run through the Gold Cup and the 2010 friendly season without the Sword of Damacles hanging over his head. If he’s a bust, we know something’s coming way in advance and have time to get our ducks in a row. Hart goes on his way and we get a new manager in plenty of time for the 2011 Gold Cup. If Hart’s a success then by god we ride that Trinidadian horse into 2012 and beyond.

Personally, I don’t think Stephen Hart is a long-term fix. The Gold Cup was a fantastic tournament but Dale Mitchell had some brilliant moments too (before the U-20 World Cup he was practically a golden boy). We need to find someone from outside the CSA system, someone with his own ideas on how to run things, and Hart is a career Association man who is singularly underqualified in any case. But if you’re going to trust Stephen Hart, then trust Stephen Hart. Give him the chance to prove me wrong.

The Mitchell Succession: The Candidates

By Benjamin Massey · March 16th, 2009 · 5 comments

First off, let me make it perfectly clear. I don’t think Dale Mitchell is going anywhere. Since Mr. Rollins’s report from the weekend, CSA media rep Richard Scott responded to the allegations via e-mail about as unambiguously as it’s possible to, saying:

Dale is our men’s head coach – so that includes friendly in May vs Cyprus, other friendlies/training camps that are always part of planning process, plus upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup for which we have just learned venues (draw yet TBA).

That’s up there on the “I did not have sex with this woman” scale of denials. Check out the Voyageurs thread for some analysis from the gallery, but the CSA has no reason to lie about that. If the board is so torn that a move has to be kept secret, what chance does a management change have of getting through anyway?

There is a CSA board meeting over the weekend, so if Mitchell’s going to take the pipe, this is the time. But so far it’s the word of an anonymous source against an official statement from the Canadian Soccer Association.

I understand why the CSA’s been backing Mitchell so hard. 2007 was the most chaotic year in the Association’s history, with the demise of Kevan Pipe, the brief flicker that was Colin Linford, and the transition between Yallop, Hart, and Mitchell on the senior team. Chaos is bad for a football team, particularly chaos right before a World Cup qualifying campaign. Putting a bullet in Mitchell’s head in 2008 would have sent the signal that the CSA still didn’t have their ducks in a row, and nobody wants to do that.

Secondly, who is the CSA going to put in charge? The Association is even more short on cash than usual since to the 2007 management debacle and the Under-20 World Cup which the Association somehow managed to lose $1.7 million on despite hosting the most successful tournament in history, and they’re not going to dream of paying a major world football manager as well as the rest of Dale Mitchell’s contract (running through 2010).Canadian technical director Stephen Hart during the 2009 Gold Cup. Image credit: Canadian Soccer Association

For financial reasons, Stephen Hart is the only plausible candidate. He’s also the least qualified, and his reputation rides entirely on the 2007 Gold Cup where Canada lost, unjustly, to the United States in the semi-final. That’s the extent of his management experience in senior football. He’s done quite a bit for the national team in the youth ranks, managing the U-17 team from 2001 to 2007. But when he was put in charge of the senior team for the Gold Cup, it was a massive surprise. When he did well, it went way against the grain.

Stephen Hart’s main job qualification is that he’s not Dale Mitchell, which is important. Dale Mitchell doesn’t have the respect of his players, and when half your team criticises you in the media and not one core guy steps forward to defend you, that’s serious. In spite of Hart’s success, the manager had been chosen and the Association would never, ever dream of going back on its word on management.

It looks like a mistake. But that was a dysfunctional qualifying campaign by any standard, and management was only one factor. If the CSA had stuck with Hart we could be talking about Hart’s replacement today, while Mitchell sits on Sportsnet as the alienated, respected former player screwed by the Association, and we’d be bringing in Colin Miller or Sean Fleming or any of the other castoffs rattling around the Canadian system.

I’d back Hart if he was appointed, not because he’s good but because he’s a change and the team wants Mitchell out. He’s not the best choice, but he’s the only choice. The rumour is that Mitchell’s “reassignment” involves taking on many of the tasks associated with the technical director, and the implication is that the Hart’s going to be getting a new office.

Hart’s the only candidate, but we all have our favourites. Rene Simoes is looking for work again, having got the axe from Fluminense a couple of weeks ago. Simoes was Linford’s pick for manager back in 2007 until the CSA shot it down as too expensive. Jamaica happily leapt on our leftovers but Jamaica played terribly under the Brazil-born manager. His Fluminense experience was even less successful, but we wouldn’t be Canada fans if we didn’t leap on every big name that glanced in our direction, no matter how far past his prime he might be.

José Pekerman is another hot candidate, another guy supposedly Too Expensive for the CSA’s tastes and already under contract to C.D. Universitario de Nuevo León. Unlike Simoes he’s done well recently, and he’s been linked to the job more than once. But if the CSA was looking his way, you have to think he’d have held off on taking a new club posting.

Finally, I’d be remiss in my duties as an amateur pundit if I failed to mention Holger Osieck. He last held a management job in 2008 with Urawa of the Japanese league, winning the Asian championship in 2007 and being sacked in early 2008 after a few bad games. It was self-evident even at the time that Osieck got a raw deal and Urawa was just looking for a chance to bring in a big name – they eventually settled on former Freiburg boss Volker Finke.

As the only Canadian manager to win anything in my lifetime there’s a lot of nostalgia for Osieck, and he could make it work. Osieck’s last Canadian team had a lot of guys like Mark Watson, Jason de Vos, and Tomasz Radzinski; players with big egos, strong opinions, and who thought they were doing Canada a favour just by showing up. Radzinski is still around (and still a brilliant player) but won’t be for long, and he’s mellowed out with age. He might consider Osieck a positive relief following Yallop and Mitchell. Watson and de Vos, of course, were sent to the glue factory long ago, and aside from fringe guys like Jim Brennan and Greg Sutton today’s team has a much stronger character than 2003’s.

But Holger wouldn’t come back. He’s sixty, he’s done enough in the game for one lifetime, and he could get a lot better jobs than Canada’s if he had a mind. The rumour is that his salary demands would be in the seven figures, which would cause the board to laugh so hard milk would shoot out of their noses.

Like it or not, unless the Association wins the 6/49, we’re stuck with either Dale Mitchell or Stephen Hart. Let’s just hope we’re picking the lesser of two evils.