12.5% of a World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · June 13th, 2018 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Congratulations are due, I suppose, to the Canadian Soccer Association for their part in winning the right to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. I’m honestly not sure how much they had to do with it. The Canadian contribution is expected to be three cities and ten games, including maybe a round-of-16 match or two, in an 18-city, 80-match tournament. Applying to “co-host” 12.5% of the largest World Cup in history probably amounted to not defecating in the hallways while the Americans provided the everything.

If Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal disappeared from the tournament nobody north of the 49th parallel would miss them. Commonwealth Stadium and Olympic Stadium are, all things considered, the worst facilities in the bid. Toronto’s BMO Field is a handsome ground but, even in its temporarily-expanded World Cup configuration, will be the smallest venue involved. And while the World Cup is still eight years away and things can happen, if you think Canada won’t be the weakest team among the hosts I love your optimism. Assuming all three hosts automatically qualify, which they might not.

At least hosting shouldn’t be expensive; the stadia are built. Then again, imagine hosting a World Cup game at today’s Commonwealth Stadium while the Americans are filling gorgeous ultra-modern NFL palaces. A men’s World Cup, that is. Back in 2015 Abby Wambach said that FIFA and the CSA would never dare put a men’s World Cup on artificial turf, we all went “pooh-pooh,” and now we’re tearing artificial turf out of 2015 host stadiums in Edmonton and Montreal so the men can get grass. Whoops. This is embarrassing but I’m sure the Canadian Soccer Association will apologize with appropriate humility.

No, renovations will be expensive and pricey. Then there are endlessly-escalating costs for security, hospitality, “legacy” projects, and simple corruption. Apparently Olympic Stadium is getting a retractable roof; how could that possibly go over budget?

And yet we get to see a World Cup, live and in person. For a certain definition of “we.” Soccer in Canada is an incredibly bourgeoise sport, none other compares, but even so, ticket prices will drive away many patrons. According to the bid guide, while 7% of tickets fall into the lowest US$21 price bracket, the other 93% start at US$174. Some diehards with good incomes will have to decide between an Argentina – North Korea match or rent.

I am cynical but not resentful. I want it to be a tremendous success, really. The 2015 Women’s World Cup was one of the great experiences of my life even though Canada disappointed. Heck, the Canadian team at the 2007 U-20 World Cup was an actual embarrassment but what a time it was all the same. If the Canadian men’s national team plays three games and loses them all in front of 45,000 screaming maple-leaf-waving partisans, that would still be a lifelong highlight for any of us. And much though taxing waitressing single moms to pay for our hobby should make us sick this bid, explicitly, was based on saving money. The bid book, the document put in front of FIFA for them to vote on, promises “no major public expenditures.” Sure the tickets are expensive, but it’s still cheaper than flying to Marrakech and watching games there.

But this 12.5% of a World Cup exposes all that is most awful about Canada. The public cost, to taxpayers who mostly won’t get anything out of it, is probably going to be ludicrous, and the only people arguing otherwise have an interest in us getting those ten games1. We’re asking for a huge subsidy for our hobby. Not a full World Cup, with the attendant prestige and international attention, but just some soccer games. Prestige is worth paying for; in 2026 we will be America’s hat. Remember, the Americans host 75% of the total games and every single fixture in the quarterfinals or later. Given how diluted a 48-team World Cup will be, Canada’s participation will be truly ancillary.

Our role in this bid was to get the Americans a tournament, and we are expected to be grateful for it. And we have been! This isn’t a shot at the United States; the Canadian soccer community has been debasing itself for this chance to pick up the Americans’ garbage, why should they refuse? The contrary idea that we should build something on our own and decline to be a branch plant is unthinkable. We’re only now getting to the point where a few of us timidly accept that a vast Dominion of 35 million can probably have a soccer league outside the American aegis. A World Cup? Say “yes, sir, Mr. Gulati, sir” and accept what we are given. It’s better than nothing, right?2 Even the name of the bid, “United,” practically begs the observer to mouth the suffix “States.”

And what do we get for it, this expenditure of scarce public money and scarcer civic pride? The Canadian government has produced a lot of probably-computer-generated crap about how Canada is so diverse and how wonderful it is that people move here and cheer for their homelands in the World Cup, so if you like that you got it. The soccer fans boast of all the infrastructure we’ll build, notwithstanding that we’re also told this World Cup will be cheap because we hardly have to build any infrastructure, and also notwithstanding that while some practice fields are great they don’t solve Canada’s shortage of 10,000-seat stadia and don’t achieve anything that couldn’t be done at a fraction of the cost. I suppose we’ll “inspire the youth.” My own cansoc awakening was at the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s Championships. But when you look at a World Cup where Canada is trotted out as a token, while the national team does poorly if it participates at all and the meaningful games take place across the border, what do we think we will be inspiring the youth to do?

Telling young Canadians that we are North America’s third fiddle and mean nothing except in relation to other nations is in tune with the past sixty years of our history, yes. But you will forgive those of us left unenthusiastic.

Waste of a World Cup

By Benjamin Massey · April 10th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

On Monday the Canadian Soccer Association, along with Mexico and the United States, announced we are bidding to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. All three countries had expressed individual interest and collaboration had long been in the wind, especially when the 48-team format was announced. The expectation is that Canada will host ten of a total 80 games.

To the Canadian this is a mixed blessing. Should we get an automatic spot Canada’s players will probably be humiliated, because after thirty years getting worse at men’s soccer there’s no sign we’ll be any better in the next nine. Our men’s U-20s, who will be in their primes in 2026, just got the everloving hell beat out of them at the CONCACAF championships. On the other hand, to play is to have a chance. Eddy Berdusco scored against Brazil once. Richard Hastings scored the golden goal against Mexico. Anyway even in defeat it would be a hell of an experience.

There’s the overhyped development angle. Mythology says that, after the ill-fated NASL, the 1994 World Cup kickstarted professional soccer in the United States. Well, in 1993 the Americans had 43 professional soccer clubs between the fully-professional APSL and the weird-hybrid USISL. By an equally generous count Canada has five. 2026 is a long way away, but unless there’s a revolution comparing ourselves to the 1993 Americans is honestly embarrassing. The generation which grew up in the shadow of Canada’s success at the 1986 World Cup happens to be the current one; it is vile.

Hosting ten games worth of World Cup couldn’t hurt of course. If the Canadian Premier League is limping along, maybe it’ll even be the vital shot in the arm, but for the money surely to Christ we could do a lot more. Because that’s the only real objection to this plan: money.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Canada could host ten games tomorrow. Shove teams into BC Place, Olympic Stadium, Commonwealth Stadium, even SkyDome if Toronto isn’t busy with the North American synchronized diving championships. Buy new artificial turf maybe, but all those buildings meet structural requirements and are in cities that have trains, airports, and hotels. Sell ’em out for Belgium – Botswana, it’ll look respectable, total cost six bucks. This is more-or-less what we did for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and that was great!

But that’s bullshit, we both know it, it absolutely does have to be that way. Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux were wrong that artificial turf is a misogynist plot but right that it is impossible in any sense but the physical for a first world country to host the men’s World Cup so efficiently. For 2015 Canada’s only hosting competition was Zimbabwe and even they dropped out. In 2026 we’ll face a lot worse, including comparisons between us and the Americans with their trillion-dollar taxpayer-subsidized gold-plated NFL palaces. If Canada cheaps out we’ll look second-class before the world next to the Americans. It is inconceivable that FIFA would approve us hosting our games on artificial turf in CFL-calibre stadiums, but equally inconceivable that our governments would have the strength of character to let us.

Can you honestly imagine FIFA, or the Canadian government, letting a billion people watch a World Cup game at SkyDome? On artificial turf? Cathal Kelly’s head would burst like an balloon full of blood. We’re going to have to build, or rebuild, everything. None of our existing facilities, save Commonwealth Stadium, are even theoretically capable of taking real grass, which you can bet your life will be a requirement. Even a token role in this tournament is going to cost a fortune.

2026 is a long way off and even if the World Cup doesn’t happen we’ll have something new by then. No doubt paid for by irresponsible public servants capitulating to pro sports owners, like the already-crumbling new Winnipeg Blue Bombers stadium. But that is no reason to invite even more expensive mistakes for the sake of an eighth of a World Cup.

With 48 teams playing between three countries, disconnected bureaucracies, and participating regions not known for probity, the opportunities for graft will be colossal. Maybe no single event in the history of the First World will give as many opportunities to the crook. Huge “public works” not meant for much more than looking pretty for a month, spread out between ridings. The semi-legal embezzlement of environmental impact statements, First Nations consultations, economic benefit analyses, that already put insiders’ kids through university. The knowledge that, whatever happens, we daren’t look like the poor cousins, and that the chequebook always has one more page.

I am a great soccer fan. The Canadian men have never made the World Cup in my lifetime and to experience that, even on television, would be the sort of sports pleasure I can barely imagine. Moreover there ain’t nothing wrong with taking it through a host’s spot in an inflated tournament. They don’t ask how, just how many. But none of that justifies me asking that the 99.99% of this country that doesn’t care about Canadian soccer be compelled under threat of force to pay enormous sums for my hobby.

Even if you don’t think maybe Canadians should keep their own money, surely (to pick one of a thousand examples) a Toronto downtown relief subway line would be cheaper, generate more jobs, help more people, and have more benefits than 12.5% of a soccer tournament, and I don’t even live in Toronto. Compare it to what proponents will call the “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to host part of a World Cup, though at age 30 I’ve seen four World Cups we hosted by ourselves. It could be justified if all we needed was to repaint what we’ve already paid for, as in 2015, or if it was a self-confident country in a spirit of vigour and celebration splurging on a luxury, and here I can’t help but cite the Montréal Olympics though even they went pearshaped. Neither describes Canadians spending billions of dollars to play third fiddle to Mexico and the United States, as if we didn’t live that every day for nothing.

Whatever It’s Called, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year is Still a Joke

By Benjamin Massey · January 11th, 2017 · No comments

John Major/Canadian Soccer Association

In 2012, after the greatest season in her own and her country’s history, Christine Sinclair was nominated for FIFA’s women’s player of the year award. She probably deserved it: the leading scorer and most valuable player at the Olympics captained a perennial underachiever to its best-ever international finish, winning world-wide admiration for skill and guts. Instead she finished fifth, behind the winner Abby Wambach (a one-dimensional goalscorer with fewer goals), Marta (who was, honestly, terrible), Alex Morgan (also good, also outscored), and Homare Sawa (another forward on another good team without much to scream about individually).

Wambach wasn’t a bad winner but what hurt was how Sinclair lost. Among peers her value was more-or-less appreciated, but in FIFA a country with no real women’s soccer program gets just as many votes as Germany. It was the their uninformed votes that relegated Sinclair to fifth place while elevating the average Sawa and the famous-but-worse-than-Melissa-Tancredi Marta. It was proof that the FIFA women’s player of the year award was devoid of merit.

2016 was the franchise’s unoriginal sequel. Once again, Canada’s women beat France and won an Olympic bronze medal. Once again, captain Christine Sinclair played an important role for a team that beat expectations. Once again, Sinclair was nominated for international player of the year, now called “THE BEST” by semi-literate cretins, and once again her opponents included an American player with a probably-inferior season but a huge international reputation (Carli Lloyd), a notable Japanese player who didn’t do anything this year (Saki Kumagai, whose team failed to even qualify for the Olympics), and a fabulously-overrated Brazilian striker coming off a unremarkable season, presumably on the list because people have heard of her (Marta, again, harder to kill than Jason Voorhees).

The plot twist was that Sinclair didn’t deserve the award either. She had a good year for club and country, putting her in Camille Abily/Amandine Henry/Lotta Schelin nice-but-not-enough territory. She was not one of the three best players in world women’s soccer, nor one of the three best out of the ten nominees. The only hope was that Sinclair would scoop up reputation votes as a fabulous player approaching the end of her career who everybody should know has never gotten her due. It wasn’t enough and she finished eighth, ahead of Abily, behind Schelin, and pretty much tied with Henry.

Canada couldn’t complain, but the results were still stunning. Marta, once again, wound up in the final three for no obvious reason. Her 2016 was not nearly as appalling as her 2012, as she bagged a couple goals against Canada and one against France in friendly play, plus two against the Swedes at the Olympics. She was also effective with Scandinavian superpower FC Rosengard, though there’s something not-quite-World-Player-of-the-Year-flavoured about the phrase “joint-leading scorer with Ella Masar*.” The Germans had three nominees in tremendous all-round midfielder Sara Däbritz, retiring sentimental favourite and long-time talent Melanie Behringer, and young forward Dzenifer Marozsan, threatening to split the vote. France’s Henry and Abily were also present.

Maybe that’s why Carli Lloyd won. Carli Lloyd, who was the bona fide 2015 world player of the year after scoring about a billion goals in the World Cup and tearing Japan to bloody ribbons in the final. Carli Lloyd, still in her prime and now, technically, an award-winning author. Carli Lloyd, who in a jam-packed 2016 managed one and a half goals against real teams, knocking a rebound into an empty net against France and scoring a pretty good header against New Zealand (that’s the half). Carli Lloyd, who captained her American national team at the Olympics to, er, a fifth-place finish, the worst in their history. Carli Lloyd, who ran off from the Houston Dash[1] to chill and go on a book tour, while her coach literally did not know where she was. Carli Lloyd, who was outscored by Behringer at the Olympics despite Behringer being a traditional midfielder and Lloyd a very attack-oriented number 10. Behringer took penalties and played more games but she out-open-play-through-the-quarter-finals-scored Lloyd three to two.

Then there was the coach of the year award. Canada’s John Herdman was nominated, as in 2012. As in 2012 there was a very good argument that he deserved to be among the contenders, and as in 2012 he came up short, finishing fourth in a bewildering field. Of the ten coaches nominated three (Brazil’s Vadão, France’s Philippe Bergeroo, and South Africa’s Dutch boss Vera Pauw) had been sacked in disgrace before the finalists were announced. Another (the United States’s Jill Ellis) is unpopular with fans for the whole “leading the team to its worst major tournament finish” thing. The winner was Germany’s Silvia Neid, who absolutely deserved it and ran away with the voting. Sweden’s Pia Sundhage was third, and also a good pick. But Ellis, the catastrophic underachiever, was second, despite the fact that her team blew its brains out in Rio and—very sorry but I’m going to have to run wild with the formatting here—Sundhage outcoached her into the ground the only time they met.

At least Neid’s victory was justice at the end of a long and legendary career. But Lloyd was less deserving than the top Germans and the idea of Marta or Ellis in their respective top threes is laughable. To make matters worse, FIFA has introduced a fan voting component to their traditional format. The votes of the captains of each national team, the coach of each national team, selected media members from each national federation, and the overall fan ballot each account for one quarter of the result[2].

The fans did some damage. Their votes bumped Ellis ahead of Sundhage and lifted Marta ahead of both Behringer and Maroszan, who among captains, coaches, and media were still behind Lloyd but ahead of the Brazilian. As it was Marta beat the Germans handsomely[3], making one wonder what sorts of idiots vote for these things.

Yet the mathematically-gifted of you will have realized that if fans get 25% of the say, that means the “experts” get 75%. No amount of Marta-worship from ballot-stuffing Brazilians, no number of Tumblr campaigns for Carli 2017, would have mattered if the professionals had voted intelligently. And when you break down the voting you see that, just like in 2012, countries that don’t even really play women’s soccer dragged the whole award into the mud[4].

Below is a table showing each nominee, her final position in the actual player of the year award, the proportion of the vote she received from all the participating captains, coaches, and media (both raw and weighted one-third each), and the proportion of the vote she received from countries ranked in the top however-many of the most recent (December) FIFA women’s soccer rankings. Also shown are the votes for all countries with a FIFA ranking, which means any country that has played a single official match in the past eighteen months, and the votes for all countries without a FIFA ranking, which haven’t. There are a few countries that are not even “not ranked” by FIFA, but regardless sent in votes; they are lumped in with the “inactive.” And advance apologies to my mobile users.

Name # All Weighted Captains Coaches Media Top 10 Top 20 Top 30 Top 40 Active Inactive
Abily 10 5.39% 5.34% 5.26% 6.19% 4.55% 9.58% 9.60% 9.17% 8.31% 6.24% 2.81%
Behringer 3 14.18% 14.73% 10.19% 11.79% 22.22% 21.07% 20.15% 20.54% 20.02% 14.27% 13.92%
Däbritz 5 6.29% 6.44% 5.01% 5.85% 8.47% 11.11% 6.21% 4.65% 4.20% 5.80% 7.81%
Henry 9 5.60% 5.49% 6.02% 6.53% 3.92% 4.60% 6.03% 5.43% 5.21% 5.64% 5.49%
Kumagai 6 7.62% 7.48% 7.52% 9.41% 5.50% 0.77% 2.45% 2.33% 3.30% 5.64% 10.99%
Lloyd 1 21.92% 21.24% 26.48% 25.28% 11.96% 6.51% 16.95% 17.05% 18.12% 21.66% 22.71%
Marozsan 4 13.19% 13.19% 13.03% 13.32% 13.23% 21.46% 19.21% 20.54% 20.02% 15.75% 5.37%
Marta 2 13.16% 13.05% 15.71% 11.79% 11.64% 7.66% 6.03% 7.11% 8.41% 11.35% 18.68%
Schelin 7 7.08% 7.35% 6.27% 4.66% 11.11% 5.75% 6.40% 8.01% 6.71% 7.07% 7.08%
Sinclair 8 5.57% 5.70% 4.51% 5.17% 7.41% 11.49% 6.97% 5.17% 5.71% 5.72% 5.13%

This table raises questions. Questions like “when Marta dies is she going to get 10% of the vote, or 15%?” and “how did countries that don’t play woso develop such a girl-crush on Saki Kumagai?”

Though the top 10 isn’t a lot of countries, it amounts to 29 voters picking three winners for a total of 81 points in ballot strength (North Korea somehow neglected to appoint a media representative). 29 people is not an overwhelming sample but major awards in sports and entertainment have been decided by fewer. For Christine Sinclair to finish third among that elite 29, including her coach and her media rep, is a tribute from the very competitors Sinclair has been trying to lift Canada up to.

Carli Lloyd starts gaining ground early, driven by a strong coach’s vote in the top 20 and top 30. Of course Jill Ellis voted for Lloyd but the coaches of England (5), the Netherlands (12) China (13), Italy (16), Switzerland (17), South Korea (18), Iceland (20), Austria (24), Belgium (25), and Mexico (t-26) also put Lloyd first. Many of those countries played the Americans in US-based friendlies this year, and Lloyd scored on not a few, so thinking they were sunk by the player of the year must be a great consolation. Italy’s Antonio Cabrini completed his confusing ballot with Marta and Lotta Schelin, then for good measure listed Jill Ellis and Philippe Bergeroo first and third on his coach’s list, suggesting there may be a reason Italian woso has on the downturn lately. Pia Sundhage had Lloyd nowhere.

Maybe they just liked her book. Anyway, what counts is that, in the real woso world, Lloyd is in no danger of catching either Marozsan or Behringer and Marta is an also-ran. The top 30-ranked countries include everyone of even minor consequence in at the senior international level, save some token Africans. Had only the top 30 voted we would have finished with Marozsan and Behringer exactly tied with Lloyd a good step behind, and that would have been an excellent result. If you don’t hold her Houston Magical Mystery Tour against her it’s easy to defend Lloyd as the third-best player on this list.

However, that’s not how it works. Among both minnows ranked below 40th in the world and the teams that aren’t active at all, Lloyd had a decisive lead. Of the 3,321 points allocated in the player of the year ballot the top thirty countries disposed of 774. Inactive countries—national teams which literally do not exist—cast 819 points worth of votes. If you want this award you’re better off being a household name with a book deal.

You can follow Lloyd’s share of the vote rising as the calibre of the voters declines, and very satisfying it is. But Carli Lloyd is nothing next to Marta. Even as far as the top 40, as minnows fill the water, Marta was incapable of cracking 9%. But add in the true nobodies and Marta is on the podium: between them and the fan vote the Brazilian Ella Masar was anointed the second-best player in world women’s soccer for 2016.

If you have the endurance, this chart shows how players’ votes changes as we descend the rankings. Select a player to highlight her, and hover over a point to see which ranking that is. Each point is a player’s ballot position among voters within a set of ten ranking places (which usually doesn’t mean ten countries), with the last point being the not-ranked and not-even-not-ranked voters.

The coach of the year ballot, thank God, was simpler from both ends. At the top, except for us homer Canadians supporting John Herdman, Silvia Neid was a fairly obvious choice both on the basis of Germany’s gold medal and as an acknowledgement of one of the best coaching careers in women’s soccer history. You might chisel her out of first place, on the grounds that she did get beat by Melissa Tancredi in a game she didn’t really want to win and that Herdman or Pia Sundhage had done more with less, but leaving Neid out of your top three altogether would have been negligence. Sundhage was the obvious contender for best of the rest, with Herdman hanging around but probably impossible for a Canadian to neutrally rate.

On the other side of the vote were, well, the guys who’d been fired already. It’s a good bet you can’t be the best coach in the world if your employer decided they’d prefer anyone else. Except for French captain Wendie Renard, who loyally put Philippe Bergeroo third on her ballot, voting for France’s fall guy was a sign of mental illness. And he might still have been better than Pauw, obviously listed only as African representation, or Vadão, whose Brazilians beat nobody in particular and needed a win from the penalty spot just to reach a home bronze medal game in which Canada, a team he had met in two pre-tournament friendlies, destroyed him.

And the fired guys weren’t even the only randoms! Gérard Prêcheur, head coach of the Olympique Lyonnais women, winner of the last season’s Champions League and Division 1 Féminine as well as a favourite in both this year, would have been a excellent nominee if you could find anybody who prioritized European club play in an Olympic year, which you can’t. A notch below were Swiss boss Martina Voss-Teckleburg and Bayern Münich’s Thomas Wörle, both of whom are probably good coaches and neither of whom had much of a 2016. Switzerland dominated a European Championships qualifying group that had nobody in it and wasn’t at the Olympics. Wörle won the last Bundesliga but ain’t gonna win this one and went out of the 2015–16 Champions League to Twente, which is even worse than it sounds. It is, apparently, hard to find ten decent women’s soccer coaches in the world; Paul Riley must be throwing Heineken bottles at his television.

So, with such an obvious top four of Neid-Sundhage-Herdman-Prêcheur, how did Ellis get the silver medal? Oh boy here comes that big table again.

Name # All Weighted Captains Coaches Media Top 10 Top 20 Top 30 Top 40 Active Inactive
Bergeroo 10 3.54% 3.50% 3.85% 3.73% 2.94% 0.77% 2.82% 2.58% 2.60% 3.01% 5.19%
Ellis 2 16.62% 16.26% 19.74% 18.24% 10.80% 1.92% 7.72% 6.59% 8.01% 13.80% 25.31%
Herdman 4 7.27% 7.30% 7.26% 6.87% 7.76% 10.73% 9.04% 9.17% 8.91% 8.06% 4.81%
Neid 1 32.46% 32.86% 28.80% 30.87% 38.89% 42.15% 37.10% 38.11% 36.54% 34.26% 26.91%
Pauw 8 3.06% 2.99% 2.39% 4.58% 1.99% 1.15% 1.13% 2.33% 2.20% 3.29% 2.35%
Prêcheur 5 8.11% 8.23% 8.72% 6.02% 9.96% 11.11% 10.17% 9.69% 9.51% 8.26% 7.65%
Sundhage 3 17.89% 17.98% 15.98% 18.58% 19.39% 26.82% 24.67% 24.29% 22.92% 19.61% 16.16%
Vadão 6 4.97% 4.89% 6.15% 4.75% 3.77% 1.15% 0.94% 0.65% 1.10% 3.45% 9.63%
Voss-Tecklenburg 7 3.03% 2.97% 2.48% 4.24% 2.20% 3.45% 4.14% 4.01% 5.31% 3.37% 1.98%
Wörle 9 3.06% 3.01% 4.62% 2.12% 2.31% 0.77% 2.26% 2.58% 2.90% 2.89% 3.58%

Neid is never not winning, so the victor was the right one. But witness, friends, the Rise and Fall of Jill Ellis. From less than two percent of the vote among the top ten (one of whom was Ellis herself), she gets a boost as she rolls downhill from support that included the reliably-mental Italians and Swiss but was in no danger of bothering the top picks. Ellis is well above the three coaches who have actually been sacked, which is fair enough, as well as oddballs Voss-Teckleburg and Wörle. Then get down to the nowhere countries and all hell breaks loose. Among the minnows only does Ellis whip the superior Prêcheur and Herdman, pass Sundhage, and storm into the medals but, in the inactive countries, she very nearly catches Silvia Neid, which by itself proves they should have their votes taken away.

Yet, again, the American is not the only recipient of minnows’ largesse. At the bottom of the rankings Vadão outpolls not only the rest of the fired brigade but Herdman and Prêcheur! In the very last tiers Bergeroo passes Herdman as well; our Geordie John apparently doesn’t have great name recognition in Argentina. Prêcheur’s work at OL makes him a bit of an insider’s candidate, and he does very well all things considered among the elite, but his little rally doesn’t last long when the obscure countries get in. Wörle, Pauw, and Voss-Tecklenburg, lacking either big names or achievement, are basement dwellers all the way, though the minnows prefer the sacked Pauw to the useful Voss-Tecklenburg in only the least of their capricious whims.

Want to see it? Too bad; I just have another one of those crappy charts.

On the men’s side, where four billion people know what Claudio Ranieri did for Leicester City, these problems don’t arise to the same extent. Complete information is available to even the most sheltered voter. Women’s soccer is much more of a niche event, and huge chunks of voting power are handed to nobodies because they captain a team that, even if it bothered to get together for a game, wouldn’t win a decent Canadian metro league. You have to look for women’s soccer, you can’t just absorb it as with the men.

There’s no question that some captains, coaches, and media from the irrelevant nations took their duty seriously and came up with ballots at least as well-informed as a random Vancouver blogger’s, and from the US to Uzbekistan the media vote was “fair” at worst. But a statistically-obvious number voted for the people they’d heard of. It wasn’t a Canadian who got screwed this time; Herdman wasn’t going to win no matter how you divided it up and Sinclair wouldn’t have deserved to. But the essential truth has not changed in four years: the FIFA women’s awards are voted on in ignorance and therefore meaningless.

(notes and comments…)

Victory with Honour

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

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

Steve Kingsman/Canadian Soccer Association

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

Because it didn’t really matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

Defeat with Grace

By Benjamin Massey · August 16th, 2016 · No comments

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

Andrew Soong/Canadian Soccer Association

I spent all morning beside myself with anxiety. My game-weekdays have a ritual: roll my office chair around aimlessly, pace back and forth for a couple hours, get up for water more than any hydrophiliac would find necessary. Then, go to the pub. Drink, drink, drink, bullshit with comrades, and drink some more. Leap up every time Canada had the ball in the attacking half, collapse in my stool every time possession was squandered. Live and die with the team; mostly die. Hollywood North would be proud. Everything went straight to the script.

So did the result: a 2-0 defeat for Canada against Germany. If this was your first women’s soccer game you’d say “Germany was better” and you’d be right. Germany looked like the more powerful team because they were. Consistently Canada launched an audacious through ball, attempted to cut the corners of the defensive square with a sudden break, and consistently Germany cut it out, because they were a half-step ahead of us through superior vision and talent. The illusion of last Wednesday, when these Canadian women snatched a stunning 2-1 victory over the Germans, is rightly dispelled. If Sweden advanced to the gold medal game by being cowards, Germany advanced by being capable. Despite being near the top of the women’s game throughout its history Germany has never before played for Olympic gold, but now they have a huge opportunity to be champions. You know what? Good for them.

It is a truism of Canadian soccer that winning never feels as good as losing does bad. The glory of Diana Matheson’s 2012 bronze-medal winner against France does not make up for that agonizing semifinal against the United States. Canada played the Americans like hell in the 2007 Gold Cup, but Atiba was onside. FC Edmonton did everything against the Montreal Impact at the 2014 Voyageurs Cup except not get screwed over by Drew Fischer, but what do we remember? Agony pierces through all other memories. This is why torture works. No Canadian supporter will ever be so stupid as to say “as long as I remember the love of my family and my country, ISIS can do what they will.” We’ll hand over the nuclear codes straight away. We’ve been there.

Today?

Today was an exception.

Don’t mistake me. That sucked. I won’t be in any hurry to watch that game again. The backbreaking first goal, when Kadeisha Buchanan flagrantly gave away a penalty in a situation when there was no need to leave her feet at all, was classic Canada shooting itself in the face. God bless Buchanan, she’s a lion, but she spent the whole Olympics believing her own Buchananbauer hype, remembering how we fans would worship her aggressive but accurate tackles, and launching those challenges into situation when she should have just kept her footing and played straight defense. Frankly, we could have lost our quarterfinal thanks to an identical foul on Eugenie Le Sommer, but the foul against Le Sommer was missed and this one was called. Buchanan is only 20, an age at which Becky Sauerbrunn was playing part-time in the USL W-League and Amandine Henry just breaking into the French national team, young for a centreback of any gender, certainly young enough to iron a mental kink out of a game that is physically dominant and technically proficient enough. I doubt she got this far in her life without costing any of her teams a careless goal and she’s mature enough that we can call it straight. I’m not worried about her. Besides, she deserves us remembering her multiple excellent challenges as well as the late-first-half header off a Janine Beckie corner kick that was only just cleared off, or maybe after, the goal line.

But let’s look at what didn’t happen. There were no scandalous calls against us. There were no six-second-rules, no Abby Wambachs shouting into the referee’s ear. Germany played with class, scored two goals, and unlike some other semifinals past there was also no capitulation. Sure, Canada didn’t have luck on its side, but they clearly belonged in an Olympic semifinal against a German team that will end this tournament ranked number one in the world. We put up a better fight than Sweden did against the United States, but the Swedes got lucky when the Americans didn’t bury their chances, and we did not.

In my post on the first Germany game I pointed out how we’d walk away from the average game thinking “we did okay, considering.” Today we did okay, considering. We were without our starting goalkeeper (never forget that; Erin McLeod would have saved the second goal) and two of our top three fullbacks. Allysha Chapman defied my optimistic projections by not overcoming her shoulder injury and Josée Bélanger was suspended with yellow card accumulation. The difference between the sublime Ashley Lawrence and the inadequate Rhian Wilkinson should suffice to show what a difference top-class wide defending can make, when Chapman and Bélanger had put in two useful weeks.

And what weeks they were! 4-0-1 so far, including wins over Germany and France! Put an asterisk on Germany if you like, but Canada beat France when the French were desperate to win. The France of Henry, of Camille Abily, of Wendie Renard, of the legendary Louisa Cadamuro playing her final tournament before premature retirement, and they were denied their storybook ending by Janine Beckie, Sophie Schmidt, and an impregnable midfield. We’ve beat them before, but in 2012 we hung on by our fingernails and hoped for heroics, while in 2016 France was better but Canada actually played soccer against them. You’ll never confuse us with a tier one team, not yet, but we’ve become “a team which, on every given night, can beat a tier one team;” honest progress.

Time was we relied on Erin McLeod stealing a game and Christine Sinclair being a one-woman wrecking crew. Today, McLeod is hurt and Sinclair a shadow of her former self, good for her starting position but no star. We could have replaced her with Deanne Rose and not lost much. In goal, while Steph Labbé’s mistakes did not cost us the mistakes were made, and it took adroit defending to keep them out of our net. Yet Canada had, by the numbers, the best major tournament in our history, on the backs of Lawrence, a resurgent Schmidt, and Beckie, who snuck between German defenders and got the sort of chances Sinclair used to, even if she missed them. Two goals against in open play, one a meaningless late blunder against Zimbabwe, despite both starting centrebacks being suspended at one point in the tournament and a back line aged, going from left to right, 27, 23, 20, and 21. (The 27 was the most replaceable of the bunch.)

At London 2012 we cried ourselves to sleep in joy over a bronze medal. At Rio 2016, a bronze medal will be consolation, a little gong to commemorate a tournament we’ll never forget anyway. We fluked out a win over France in 2012; if the host Brazilians similarly get lucky against us in 2016 I doubt it’ll burn our guts out. In 2012 we hadn’t really done anything and needed the medal to take something from a tournament that should have been so much more. In 2016, we know what we’ve done, know what we’re capable of, and another bronze would be a bonus. That’s why we can view today’s loss with equanimity rather than heartbreak.

Now, I’m not leaping up and dancing. Sinclair is the greatest player in the history of women’s soccer and of Canadian soccer, and had a wholly unexpected late-career opportunity to win a gold medal. Olympic and World Cup glory have equally eluded her, and though she would have been a supporting player in any Rio 2016 triumph it wouldn’t matter: for her sake, alone, for the sake of putting a luminous exclamation mark on the sentence of a career that should be burned in fire, silverware would have been worth any sacrifice. If Sinclair retires without a championship then we, both the players who weren’t good enough for her and the fans who did not advance women’s soccer in this country when it could have made a difference, will wear the shame of that. We should still feel abashed. After all, there’s still no women’s professional soccer team anywhere in Canada.

However, on the day, can you point to one teammate and say “she didn’t leave everything on the pitch?” Even Buchanan’s mistake was an excess of passion. To blame some of our players for not being talented enough seems to miss the point: we can wish for the game of their lives but can hardly be upset when it wasn’t there. In the first German game (or the Melissa Tancredi game, as I find I want to call it), her friends and teammates sacrificed everything to turn a 2-1 lead into Olympic history. Overturning a 2-0 disadvantage against those same Germans takes more than sacrifice, but the skill is coming. Having just seen what we’ve seen, can we swear that Canada will not be among the contenders in 2020, and that Sinclair will not still be hanging around?

I’m not happy, but I’m content. I’m proud of that team, again. In the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 World Cup, and again this year, they never disappoint. Every time they rise just a little, a team that’s more than the sum of its parts, the best of Canadian traditions. This Olympics might have been the most worthy achievement of the John Herdman era and we haven’t even played for a medal yet.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2016 · No comments

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

Al Quintero/Canadian Soccer Association

It’s a bastard, but the Canadian women’s soccer team was better off losing today and everybody knew it. Defeating Germany, the current second-ranked team in the world[1] and the overall strongest nation in women’s soccer history, would give Canada its first-ever perfect group stage in a major international tournament and represent our biggest upset of all time. Incidentally, it would also make our lives much worse, all-but-guaranteeing Canada a quarter-final matchup against world number three France rather than a relatively sweet game against China or Sweden.

In FIFA tournaments the knockout-round brackets are drawn before the groups are set and life is unfair: the winner of Group F, Canada’s group, was predestined to face the second-place team of Group G, containing both France and the United States. Whereas the second-place team in Canada’s group would take on the second-place team from Group E; in any event much easier opposition. The Olympics are a twelve-team tournament and, thanks to FIFA’s format, even with Japan out in qualifying it’s probably impossible to balance what Canada boss John Herdman calls the “tier 1” teams of the United States, Germany, France, and Japan fairly. In 2012 Canada got lucky with the draw and in 2016 we didn’t. Such is life.

With the rewards for second place being so great, the attitude of the Canadian supporter was unusual. No result against Germany, however disastrous, could have eliminated us from the tournament, and the pressure was off. I don’t think any fans went so far as to say we should deliberately lose today; this isn’t the NHL. But there was a definite feeling of “not necessarily losing, but losing if necessary;” that while we shouldn’t give Germany the three points, we could put ourselves in a position where it would be easier for Germany to take them. I think John Herdman agreed. Christine Sinclair, the best player in the history of women’s soccer, started on the bench. So did Janine Beckie, the leading scorer of the Olympics so far, and Ashley Lawrence, Canada’s presumptive 2016 player of the year. They joined Kadeisha Buchanan, the 20-year-old world-class centreback who had been suspended thanks to a yellow card against Zimbabwe that definitely looked deliberate, and Erin McLeod, one of the five best players in Canadian history but out for as long as two years with a knee injury, on the shelf.

As for the Germans? The senior Canadian women’s team first played them July 27, 1994 in Montreal and lost 2-1, giving up two goals to a debutante named Birgit Prinz who would become the best female player in European history. Since then Canada has played Germany in three World Cup games and nine friendlies, and lost every single one. Our women’s U-20s have also lost every game against Germany, including the 2-0 German victory in 2014 that eliminated us from the U-20 Women’s World Cup at home, and our U-17s can boast only a single 2-2 draw on March 15, 2014, when Jessie Fleming and Marie Levasseur got us a precious point at the U-17 World Cup. By any measurement, at any age group, Canada is hugely inferior to Germany. There is no improvement with context and no space for an asterisk. The Germans have played us more than a dozen times and dominated almost every one. Canada plays Germany, Germany wins easily, and we walk away thinking “we did okay, considering.” That is how it works.

Now, the remorseless calculus I detailed above applied to Germany as well. They wanted to finish second in their group as much as Canada did, but there was a hitch. In a shock result on Saturday, Germany managed only a 2-2 draw against Australia. As a result, while a draw would have suited the Germans very well, a loss might have been a problem as there was a possibility they’d finish third in the group and life would suddenly get a little too interesting. Besides, when you’re Germany, the prospect of facing France isn’t quite so intimidating.

Therefore Germany did not dare run out the full “B” squad. Anja Mittag, the closest German equivalent to Sinclair, started. So did skipper Saskia Bartusiak, legendary midfielder Melanie Behringer, and defender Annike Krahn, one of the best defensive players to ever live. Their second-best forward, Dzsenifer Marozsán, started, but their best, Alexandra Popp, did not. Call it an A- team against Canada’s full B. A boring 0-0 would have been fine by Germany’s lights, and when Behringer converted an early penalty (well-deserved by the lovable but aggressive Allysha Chapman) to put Germany up 1-0, that should have been that. Canada wouldn’t mind losing, Germany might give up one the other way but no more than that, the two teams would fight about the details but that would be all. As a truly competitive fixture this would be done.

That’s where we were wrong.

I don’t mind tooting my own horn here. On Twitter and this past weekend’s episode of 99 Friendship I was unequivocal: I wanted Canada to go for it and beat Germany, if we possibly could. Sure, it would give us a tougher quarterfinal game, but the rewards in terms of morale and pleasure would be well worth it. Canada doesn’t beat “tier 1” teams, except for the bronze medal match at London 2012, and that game has lived forever. To do it again, albeit in a somewhat lesser context; yes, that would be worth giving up a good shot at a fourth-place finish.

But if I brag, you’ll take it in context. Because the one thing I believed more fervently than “we should beat Germany if ever we can” was “Melissa Tancredi should be nowhere near the Canadian starting eleven.” In fact I wouldn’t have taken her to Rio at all. 34 years old, slow as hell, uninspiring even against Zimbabwe, having never recovered her accuracy or reflexes from when she took time off to get a fake chiropractic degree, she didn’t belong in the same universe as a national soccer team. The jokes I made about her were actually cruel, and though I sometimes tried to temper it with “but I remember when she saved our asses in 2012…” I didn’t always. 2015 was ever-so-much-more-recent, after all, and had we taken Janine Beckie instead of Tancredi that World Cup might have gone very differently.

It wasn’t personal. Big, humble in both attitude and origin, always giving her 100%, and willing to be a complementary player while also being unafraid to take the team on her back, Tancredi is everything you want a Canadian athlete to be. Her flaws are age and athleticism and neither is her fault. But this is high-level sport, and so I was right out in front saying Tancredi should be given a fake “retirement game” in which she plays six minutes then gets put out to pasture without so much as a handshake and a plaque. God love her but she’s useless. The idea of her taking minutes from a Janine Beckie, a Deanne Rose, or a Nichelle Prince is an actual insult, and while friendship and connectedness are all very well, this is a business and John Herdman needs to make a business decision once in a while. When the Canadian Soccer Association announced that both Sinclair and Diana Matheson were sitting, and that Tancredi was not only starting but taking the captaincy for the day, I reacted badly.

If ever you read this blog again, please remember that I am an idiot.

Forget the goals. Tancredi started great. She launched a beautiful flick-on header to Josée Bélanger, then swept another one-touch ball to Bélanger off her foot, in the first ten minutes. Neither amounted to anything because, as I said above, Germany is excellent, but Tancredi was all over the shop in the best way. Making herself available for passes, playing the pass accurately when it arrived, looking like the woman of four years earlier. It was inspiring stuff, even before she’d troubled the scorers, even when Behringer had converted that penalty and Germany was outchancing Canada ten to one. Even when it looked like we were about to lose 3-0 and not mind too much. You couldn’t say Tancredi had done a thing wrong, come what may.

Then the game changed. Desirée Scott (another popular whipping girl for the past few months) pushed the ball forward through an open channel to Tancredi, and am I crazy or did Tank take it out left, try the shot, and miss the ball? Hahaha! She’s so old! She’s so awful! Janine Beckie would have scored! Except one of the advantages of her experience is that you know how to compose yourself when things don’t go just right, and Tancredi was going for another shot before Germany had realized their chance. This time she got it just right, sliding it low into the corner, and Canada had tied the game.

Now, at this point it was 1-1 in the first half and Germany was still playing well. Tancredi was in line to be Canada’s man of the match but no more than that: a “she exceeded my expectations, fair play to her,” a footnote in history, a little “hey you remember when Tancredi…” in five years’ time. She kept working hard, giving the German defense fits, and throwing herself around the field to make plays, but that’s no more than even her most fervent haters would have expected.

What changed the game was not, without diminishing her accomplishments, Tancredi as an individual. It was that her teammates picked up on her energy and raised their own level to meet it. An old, popular player was absolutely on form against a marquee opponent, and which of those Canadians was going to give anything less than her best and cause Tanc to lose face? Which of them would dare be responsible for turning what might be their friend’s last great game into a lowly piece of trivia? The long-time comrades of Tancredi’s, like Rhian Wilkinson and Sophie Schmidt, certainly felt it. But so did the solid Rebecca Quinn and relatively recent re-introduction Josée Bélanger. Maybe we shouldn’t make fun of #99friendship and the #mostconnectedteam so cavalierly, because that game was a demonstration of its value.

We sat down to watch a meaningless scrimmage, and an all-time classic broke out. Germany was still on their game, still pushing, but Canada was a step ahead and slowly gaining the ascendancy. At half, jokes about “well, what if Canada wins and has to play France?” had suddenly become a little more serious and a lot less terrifying. The spark of magic was in the air, and Tancredi getting her head to a bombed-in free kick from Quinn was only justice. 2-1 to Canada! It was the first time Canada had led against Germany in over a decade, when Charmaine Hooper and Kara Lang staked Big Red to a 2-0 lead on September 4, 2005 that they’d subsequently blow for a 4-3 loss.

We didn’t blow this one. Tancredi was a massive reason why, clearing defensive headers from our own box on set pieces. So was Diana Matheson, who came on as a substitute and immediately threw herself into slide tackles like she was playing for two medals at once. Steph Labbé, another player I think I may have said a few bad words about, not only shagged some crosses but made a dandy save late in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead. The Germans brought out Popp, threw everyone forward, went like hell to get a draw and a point that might be precious. In reply, John Herdman sent on Nichelle Prince for Deanne Rose, and I would bet a million dollars that, before the game, Herdman had conceived that move as “Prince for Tancredi.” But a good coach knows how to adapt to the situation, and it wound up being a good move in its own right. Prince showed an unexpected level of defensive intensity, winning the ball in the climactic minutes of stoppage time to get Canada that 2-1 win and its first ever point at the senior level against the Germans. A relatively new player, but she wasn’t going to let her friends down either.

As a result, Canada will face a quarterfinal of death against France. There will be no restraint in France, no “well a draw would be better…” They will be too happy to avenge their loss in the London 2012 bronze medal game. We played them very hard in a recent tune-up friendly, but France held some of their stars back and still won 1-0. The bookies will make them big favourites to beat us and, let’s be honest, squinting through the haze of victory, they’re probably right. If we’re dispassionate, odds are that despite playing much better than we did four years ago, Canada’s 2016 Olympics will end in the quarterfinal.

And you know what? I don’t care. For the first time ever Canada beat Germany. They did it without Buchanan, without McLeod, without Sinclair. They did it to a German team that, notwithstanding some early uncertainty, definitely wanted to stop us and ran out every gun they had. They did it in the Olympic Games, and in women’s soccer it’s debatable whether the Olympics rank behind the World Cup at all. I hope we can beat France, keep this wonderful run going, but even if we do lose it’ll be worth it. We beat Germany, fair and square. That’s one to tell the grandkids about. And Melissa Tancredi was the heroine, reminding us all that you don’t get to the pinnacle of sport if you can’t prove the haters wrong once in a while.

(notes and comments…)

Reaction to That #CanWNT Roster, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 20th, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

You know those women you thought were going to the Olympics? They’re going to the Olympics.

The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

Scatterbrained Canada 2015 Thoughts

By Roke · July 8th, 2015 · No comments

So that was a World Cup, held in Canada no less. I guess these are some late (especially with the Gold Cup having kicked off) and scattered thoughts.

It certainly did not end the way I had hoped with the Americans winning and more than once during the final I thought, “at least that isn’t Canada getting blitzed.” Carli Lloyd’s performance made it a good spectacle though, topping it off with that wonderful goal from halfway. The Americans were worthy winners, turning things up when the knockout stages came about. Most of the followers of the US Women’s National Team I follow didn’t think Jill Ellis had it in her to make the player and tactical changes necessary to get the Americans to play well but she did, and they did. Kadeisha Buchanan picking up the Young Player Award at the end made it all the more worthwhile

Canada played pretty well, if nothing else this team makes it easy to be incredibly proud when cheering for them. It would have been nice for them to reach the semi-finals but losing in a very even match of a single-game knockout can hardly be disappointing. That sort of thing happens all the time in sport. At least the quarterfinal featured another wonderful Christine Sinclair performance, there cannot be many more of those left. Ashley Lawrence’s marauding play in midfield and Kadeisha Buchanan’s stellar play at the back were particular highlights. With Jessie Fleming continuing to show promise the future is reasonably bright, in some areas.

The attack was the most underwhelming part of the Canadian performance. The setup and talk was all about a fluid front three but it seemed to me to lack structure and had difficulty carving out chances short of moments of individual brilliance. Herdman not having much in the way of attacking options may have compounded that. I thought the team also struggled more than most teams playing out from the back and they never seemed to having the passing options the other teams had but I am not observant enough to figure out why that is (or whether I am in fact completely wrong). While there were some poor individual performances in matches, the thought that quickly followed was often, “Jesus, I didn’t realize player –x- was in already in their 30s.” With the peak performance age in soccer being in the 23-28 range it is not very surprising for players on the wrong side of that to not be at their best.

The tournament in general was wonderful. Goal-line technology kept working (I still hold out hope that we’ll have offside technology one day to free up the assistant referees to help spot fouls . The expanded field was rarely exposed, the officiating was largely solid, and there was a nice variety of playing styles. China’s nearly successful bus parking against Canada contrasted nicely with France’s flowing attacking play. There were magnificent team goals, brilliant strikes, and as heartbreaking (and spectacular) an own goal as you will ever see.) It had pretty much everything that makes soccer great.

Shockingly the artificial surfaces did not lead to MASH units having to set up tents pitch side, nor cause cricket scores, nor make headed goals impossible, nor lead to soccer matches spontaneously combusting into Canadian football games. The one tangible thing to come about was that sports reporters and media know that infrared thermometers are on sale (congratulations on catching up to home cooking). You would think that any surface temperature issue would be obvious with artificial surfaces used throughout North America for soccer and football but in the buildup to the tournament the only mention I saw was in a few of Duane Rollins’ tweets.

To be honest I am still not sure of the effects of artificial surfaces have on how soccer is played. The surfaces seem to merely be a Rorschach test for any number of grievances. On social media I saw turf blamed for the ball rolling too quickly on the surface and too slowly, the ball bouncing away from players on long passes and the ball held up by the surface when it bounces. With my eyes I still cannot pick out the differences between the turf and grass. I may well be terrible at watching soccer the lack of tangible evidence or consensus on turf effects make it seem like complaints are nothing more than appeals to tradition or some naturalistic fallacy.

If there was one thing that bothered me throughout the tournament it was the completely patronizing, “there’s no diving, antics, of faking in women’s soccer” that seemed pervasive throughout the tournament. I can only assume these people do not watch women’s or men’s soccer because they sure as hell did not watch the London Olympics if we are talking about antics. For one, the diving and playacting were not up to CONCACAF levels but CONCACAF men’s antics are in a league of their own. This tournament did not seem any different from your average English or European fixture. For another I am not sure why a dive is worse than any other foul and it is certainly not as bad as harming your opponent with say, dangerous tackles (of which there seems to be much less moralizing). Yes, I would like to see more yellow cards handed out for diving but I would like to see more handed out for iffy tackles and tactical fouling.

At the end of the day, the World Cup was a tournament and I quite enjoyed. If hosting FIFA events did not mean supporting and dealing with FIFA I would like for it to happen again sometime.

The American Hate Conundrum

By Benjamin Massey · July 5th, 2015 · 3 comments

Anti-Americanism is the Canadian vice. Not sporting rivalry but the full-blown Carolyn Parrish “damned Americans, I hate those bastards” experience. When Americans run into this attitude they treat it with the indulgence of an older sibling seeing the younger’s inferiority complex – quite correctly, too – but I think your average American would be surprised to realize just how deep and widespread genuine antipathy to his country can be up here.

This places the soccer fan in an awkward position. On the one hand, the genuine anti-American nauseates anybody of feeling. The attitude ranges from an “I like a lot of them as individuals, I just don’t like their culture” to, well, Carolyn Parrish, and provokes a careful changing of the topic or a robust neighbourly defence, depending. All very proper, but naturally it leads to some reluctance to cheer against American national teams too zealously, lest one become the sort who expresses distaste for rap music and winds up chatting to the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

On the other hand, rivalry is rivalry and the United States is the most ancient of enemies. That alone doesn’t cover the unique virulence of the loathing many Canadians feel, but there is something especially awful about this United States team. Our domestic clubs chafe under the Yankee yoke and condemn too much Canadian talent to obscurity. Abby Wambach is the bane of sports, an opinionated, arrogant, self-promoting and self-absorbed moral dumpster fire who is finally turning off even her own fans as her ability falls far behind her attitude. The only thing saving Wambach from being Lucifer incarnate is that she plays on a team with Hope Solo, who simply put ought to be in remand rather than a World Cup final. Add Sydney Leroux, who seeks all the affection and benefits of a Canadian star without any of the responsibilities, and tries to escape the consequences of her actions behind a phalanx of sycophants, and you have the best recipe for legitimate hatred ever concocted. Even players both decent off the field and skilled on it like Alex Morgan indulge in nauseating gamesmanship, and while real jewels like Megan Rapinoe may shine the more brilliantly for their rarity, they are too few to make the difference.

If you are a non-American, and particularly a Canadian, you have plenty of reason to boo the USWNT even if you wear a tattoo of George Washington over your heart.

But did that paragraph not restate the bad sort of anti-Americanism in a different way? For why do we so intimately know about Wambach’s swineishness, Solo’s actual evil, Leroux’s dishonesty? Because they are Americans. Their media are our media, and for every four rah-rah-U-S-A reporters there’s still one to dig in the dirt, and in a country that size it adds up to quite a few.

If a Japanese player smacked around her family, and two more had gone on TV shouting superstitious fear-mongering about artificial turf, and the locker room was a hotbed of the worst sort of infighting, how many Canadians would know? The Americans are disadvantaged because they speak our language and we know them, or think we do.

Moreover, don’t the sins for which we excoriate the USWNT – colossal arrogance, violence, hyper-competitiveness mingled with entitledness – match awfully well with the worst Canadian stereotypes of Americans? German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, while unquestionably gifted, is by all accounts an unpleasant customer and was highly active in the anti-artificial turf controversy. Which Canadians booed Germany because of her? Some of our attitude is a bit too pat, a bit too flattering to ourselves, to withstand much criticism.

In the end the heart wants what the heart wants, and those American women are hard to like while the Japanese team plays an attractive style and is otherwise a blank canvas onto which we can project our ideals. Oh, I’ll be rooting for Japan today, make no mistake. Leroux alone makes any team she plays for my least-favourite team in women’s soccer. But let’s keep our brains running as well as our hearts, and stay away from the Canadian vice, that twists disliking a national team into disliking a nation.