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.

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.

By Benjamin Massey · June 30th, 2015 · No comments

Just so you know, this was all Roke’s fault.

Tune: Stan Rogers, “Barrett’s Privateers.”

Oh the year was two thousand and fifteen,
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now.)
A World Cup tourney came from the Swiss,
To a country whose fields were plastic piss,

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Oh, Johnny Herdman, he searched Canada,
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
For twenty-three women, all talented, who
Could win for him a trophy true.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

The BC Place pitch was a sickening sight.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
She had lines from the cars and plastic bits,
Would rise every time the ball was hit.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

On the sixth of June we took the field.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
We scraped past China at the death,
And never drew calmly a single breath.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Three more times we’d play again.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
They were just little countries filled with sheep,
But even the Swiss nearly made us weep.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Then at length we met the English gals.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
They were tall and quick and full of guts,
While our fans punched each other in the nuts.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

The Canadians rocked and fell apart.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
There wasn’t an answer from the boss,
And Canada went straight down to the loss.

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

And the Americans killed the German side.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
There’s a Surrey girl playing for the Yanks,
’cause when Canada called she said “no thanks!”

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Now here I await the final game.
(How I wish I was in Edmonton now!)
Four years ago we got the Cup,
How I’d wish we’d given the damn thing up!

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the fields
For American goals
We’d ship not one.
Shed no tears!
Now I’m a broken man drinking sour beers,
The last of Herdman’s Voyag-eers.

Wiping Away the Tears

By Benjamin Massey · June 27th, 2015 · 2 comments

Prior to Canada’s World Cup quarterfinal against England, the Canadian Soccer Association and local Voyageurs moved heaven and earth to assemble a proper supporters’ section on next-to-no notice. Fans abandoned pricy tickets already purchased and plunked down in an improvised mob behind TSN’s set with the anything-for-our-ladies attitude that defines the Voyageur. It was a feat of improvisation that did credit to both the officials and fans of Canadian soccer. TSN and the British press had run articles criticizing Canada’s church-like atmosphere and the players themselves had put out a video calling for drums and chants; this was no time for half-measures.

Unfortunately, a family of four in front of this section was uninformed of this. First they objected to the drum, with ominous words about “making an issue out of this,” and in the spirit of kindness it was moved back. Then it turned out they objected to noise full stop. While stewards sought to move them elsewhere in a sold-out stadium, the father claimed that chanting for 90 minutes was stupid, embarrassing. The aforementioned video calling for just that was mentioned, whereupon the gentleman attempted to fight a Voyageur. Cooler heads prevailed that time, and another Voyageur, one who’d literally bought this section on his personal credit card for the sake of Canada, tried to reason with this fellow. This fellow naturally suckerpunched the Voyageur in the penis, and praise God that was it for him at last.

There is a point to this story. Most of the 54,000 fans in BC Place were all for the Voyageurs, or at least benevolently neutral. Two people were not, and those two held up the whole show. By the time they were finally removed, and the supporters could focus on supporting, it was 2-0 England and in spite of a gallant pushback our World Cup was ending. Were I a believer in this sort of karmic energy, and when it comes to soccer I sort of am, I’d say that was no coincidence.

It’s useless saying who was right or wrong, at least until a father decided chants were so embarrassing he’d try to fight two strangers in front of his children. But we’ve all seen this sort of thing from many Canadian fans in many grounds. It’s cultural. As undeniable as Canada’s love affair with its women’s national team is, the culture hasn’t really changed. And as long as the culture is so parochial, we’re going to have big problems.

There. Now does it sound more generally applicable to Canadian soccer?

I leave today as I leave most Canadian soccer campaigns, hoarse and traumatized and broken and tired. It’s hard to say where this falls in the pantheon of awful Canadian moments, but bombing out of the World Cup in a quarterfinal at home before a record crowd to a team we ought to defeat and, indeed, outplayed takes some beating. Yet there are so many little joys to take. A thousand fans stuck around for half an hour after Canada was eliminated, cheering and crowding the rail and showering their heroines in love. Christine Sinclair is still in all the Coke commercials, but the cheer for Kadeisha Buchanan tells me she’s no longer the only player Canadians can name. And the country fell in love with these women all over again – more than that, we’ve seen thoroughly decent crowds in far-flung cities for completely neutral games. It’s not just the women’s national team that can work in Canada, it’s women’s soccer.

Many people are viewing this game with a cynic’s eye, knowing that we would go wrong, and telling us all why. This is well and good and some of those pundits are right, but honestly? I attended every Canada game at the U-20 Women’s World Cup last year and every Canada game at the senior World Cup this year, and I just don’t have the energy. I really thought Canada would have a good tournament. Fourth place, I said it again and again, and we were one mistake in central defense from it coming true. And the women who played for us are such wonderful representatives of their country that… well, there’s no point saying a team deserves anything for that reason, but if ever a team did, it was this one.

Christine Sinclair apologized to Canada for the result through coach John Herdman. There’s no way Sincy’s reading this but if she is, come on. Nobody has ever less owed an apology. Canada should apologize to you for not cheering hard enough, for not packing the stadiums enough, for not supporting our programs enough years and years ago when it could have made a difference and gotten you the silverware you so deserve. Sinclair will retire as the greatest female player to never win a World Cup or Olympic gold medal. And we – you and me – could have helped prevent that. 2012 was far, far too late.

I leave with one thought for the future. There’s been talk of how the proposed Canadian national soccer league can work in competition with three MLS and two NASL teams. But the solution is self-evident: make it a women’s league. Put that on TSN every week and maybe the next World Cup won’t end in tears.

A Team Worth Cheering For

By Benjamin Massey · June 21st, 2015 · No comments

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Ville Vuorinen/Canadian Soccer Association

Josée Bélanger scoring the winner for Canada against Switzerland could not have been more perfect. Bélanger is the archetypical Canadian player in 2015. Coming up through the youth ranks, undersized and largely unheralded, Bélanger spent the formative years of her soccer career puttering around Canadian universities and the USL W-League. For many years she was in Canada’s national pool but never swimming very far, serving up the occasional lovely cross then returning to obscurity. She probably would have retired by now, another casualty of the near-inability to make a living in Canada playing women’s soccer, had John Herdman not been so persistent.

Instead the life-long forward started a home World Cup at right back, because Rhian Wilkinson was hurt and somebody had to do it. Bélanger played with hustle and heart until Wilkinson returned, then moved back to her natural role with more hustle and heart, banging in Canada’s biggest goal in Canada’s biggest-ever tournament before Canada’s biggest-ever crowd for one of our soccer national teams. She ran like an antelope for 90 minutes and would have been one of the highlights of the night even if she hadn’t scored. But she did, and the former Quebec City Amiral is now a national heroine. Because that’s how these women work.

One hates to sound like that chauvinist who smears on a smug grin and says “those girls, they’re so nice, and they try so hard.” Spouting the most overused canards from the Big Book of Cliché to cover their inability, indeed their lack of inclination, to cover a women’s national team seriously. But what else are you supposed to say when women ranging from 17 years old to their mid-30s fight to the point of collapse in game after game, and every goal sends every player into a jumping frenzy of joyous love, and the bench is exhorting 55,000 Vancouverites to get up and cheer like champions, and the team celebrates one of the biggest wins of their lives by sticking around signing autographs for children until the stadium almost empties? This is a lovable team, a valiant unit made up of quality people, and every victory is twice as good because they’re the ones winning it.

Admire the hell out of Sophie Schmidt for grinding out 90 minutes of pain, and respect her ability keeping the Swiss on the back foot late when they were desperate to attack, but love her for giving her time and her heart to her country seemingly without limit. Love Karina LeBlanc’s near-abashed reaction the crowd chanting for her in Montréal, and Erin McLeod saving the day for Canada in Vancouver. Kadeisha Buchanan, who misses three days of practice with injury and puts on a lionine defensive effort on a back line in need of a 19-year-old who plays like a veteran. Christine Sinclair, who shyly smiles her way through being a flawless ambassador for both her friends and her country, and facing doubters in the World Cup puts her body on the line to make Bélanger’s goal possible. It’s no tacky sportswriter tripe to praise these women for their personality, because it’s earned, and their skill on the field only emphasizes their class off it.

These women – these specific women – are more than a Canadian national team. They reflect what we wish Canada could always be. Confident without arrogance. Proud of each other and humble as individuals. Not always winners, alas, but always fighting until the end. An attitude you can see, you can feel, you can even hear, that they’re doing all this for someone other than themselves. No other Canadian national team, male or female, can boast the same, and we shouldn’t be so self-conscious about acknowledging how special that is. It’s not taking the women less seriously to say all this: quite the contrary. There are plenty of good soccer teams, but this one is something more, and holding them up as an example for once feels right in the world of involuntary and inappropriate role models that is professional sport.

A mere four years ago, things were so different. Many of these players were in the press for the wrong reasons, arguing with the Canadian Soccer Association about money. They were isolated, occasionally surfacing in Europe for a friendly nobody would see. It was more “professional”, more “serious”, less personal, led by a high-profile and high-priced coach to whom “Canadian” seemed an epithet rather than an ideal. It was a team that was hard to know, let alone adore, and the result of all this was to finish dead last in the 2011 World Cup, a disaster enlivened only by Christine Sinclair suffering a facial injury and playing through it, reminding us of the Canadian grit that still hid beneath deep European waters.

How quickly things change. Oh, the bronze medal at London 2012 meant the world, but it takes more than that. Plenty of teams have enjoyed one success. Not Canada. This has already been a good World Cup, only our second ever trip to the quarterfinals and a decent chance of going further. The country bleeds with its heroines, goes crazy for every save, dies for every goal. We are surpassing the halcyon days of 2002 and 2012. At this point how can any fan not shelve the cynicism, close his eyes, and just go with it?

Oh, You Panicking Canadians

By Benjamin Massey · June 18th, 2015 · No comments

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Ian Jackson/Canadian Soccer Association

Canada has won its group at the Women’s World Cup for the first time ever. Naturally fans are terrified. Only two goals, one from open play! An indifferent draw against débutantes the Netherlands! We drew New Zealand, a notorious country of sheep-shaggers, and they hit the crossbar on a penalty! Now we have a round-of-16 date with Switzerland, which, says the narrative, is surely to God going to be a difficult test for our underachieving women.

Before the tournament everyone worth listening to agreed Canada should win its group. We did so, though not in the style we hoped for. Everyone also knew that this group was as deep, top-to-bottom, as any. New Zealand was not at all bad. They looked good, played attractive soccer, threatened Canada and China, and with a TSR of 0.545 and an average of 46.67% possession had the second-best numbers of any eliminated team and the most impressive in context. Finishing fourth was very hard cheese indeed for the Kiwis: put them in groups B, C, E, or F and odds are they’re in the round of 16. So when we say “Canada’s scored fewer goals than…” we, to an extent, complain that the good New Zealanders were our fourth-place team. No Ecuador, no Thailand, no Costa Rica (yes, they really were that bad), no Mexico for us to beat up. We also conceded only a single goal against three teams that we know, from their qualifying results, are able to finish chances against truly lousy opposition. The results, while far from brilliant, were fine: it turns out there really is no bad way to win your group undefeated.

2015 WWC Group Stage TSRs
Team Group Pts TSR PDO
Germany B 7 0.902 116.59
France F 6 0.875 90.00
Brazil E 9 0.712 126.67
Cameroon C 6 0.701 109.52
Spain E 1 0.667 53.33
Canada A 5 0.606 99.05
Switzerland C 3 0.598 107.94
United States D 7 0.585 116.07
New Zealand A 2 0.545 100.00
China A 4 0.532 90.37
Japan C 9 0.520 118.27
Australia D 4 0.500 95.24
Nigeria D 1 0.493 92.50
Norway B 7 0.474 127.57
England F 6 0.453 100.45
Sweden D 3 0.422 110.00
South Korea E 4 0.419 77.78
Ivory Coast B 0 0.411 67.14
Mexico F 1 0.380 75.16
Netherlands A 4 0.357 108.18
Colombia F 4 0.333 143.59
Costa Rica E 2 0.236 143.33
Thailand B 3 0.179 105.24
Ecuador C 0 0.169 68.10
All statistics from FIFA.com
Italics indicate an eliminated team

So were our results just luck? We were second in the group for shots directed (one behind China) and second in shots directed against (one behind New Zealand). Our TSR, 0.606, led the group by a healthy margin and is a completely respectable sixth in the tournament. Drawing broad conclusions from three games is intensely dangerous, but look at the list of group stage TSRs to the right: account for group strength, especially the truly useless minnows like Thailand and Ecuador, and there are few surprises. Don’t take it as the gospel, of course Spain’s not actually that good and Japan’s not actually that bad, but if you can find misery from that table you’re even more of a pessimist than I.

Small sample size and all that so run the “eye test” if you like, but run it in context. Yes, we got a stoppage time penalty against China, but it was absolutely deserved and we’d knocked on the door several times in the game. New Zealand hit the woodwork against us; we hit the woodwork against them twice. The Dutch came back against us after Canada’s best surviving midfielder, Sophie Schmidt, had to come out due to injury. Both teams generated chances and a draw was a just result. Canada’s generated chances but hasn’t managed to put them home despite being without Diana Matheson, probably our best player. Our defense has been quite good even as we’ve moved a forward to right back and Lauren Sesselmann has struggled mightily. Jessie Fleming’s had some good minutes, Ashley Lawrence has been an X-factor incarnate, and Kadeisha Buchanan has been Canada’s all-but-undisputed player of the tournament to date, so we aren’t relying on the same crowd of veterans. Finally, the crowds, even in frequently-neutral Montreal, have been solidly pro-Canadian: there’s a risk that this will change as we move into the later rounds, but despite dark rumours of Chinese and Dutch supporters getting well-organized chanting sections at heavy discounts we’ve enjoyed that still-too-rare phenomenon of Canadian soccer crowds rooting, by and large, for Canada.

You may well say “ah, but none of this points to Canada being world-class” and you’ll be right. Germany and France absolutely brutalized their groups. Brazil enjoyed playing against an abominable Costa Rican team and the fast-decomposing South Koreans but may still be unpleasantly close to recapturing their prime. Even the Americans, despite looking like a washed-up batch of reprobates occasionally taking breaks from infighting to whine about playing on the same surfaces as their opponents, have got the job done well enough with only a little help from the referees and at some point we have to say that’s a built-in American advantage, not “luck.” Canada, based on its group performances, is probably not going to win the World Cup. But nobody expected them to, nobody in their right mind at least.

Are our programs still inadequate, our women’s club teams all-but-non-existent to even a high amateur level, our youth development troublesome? Of course, none of that has changed, go ahead and ride whatever your hobby horse is. Yet a handful of under-20 players are having nice games on women’s soccer’s biggest stage as we speak. Given that we were stone dead last in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and barely crawled out of the group stage at the 2012 Summer Olympics, a little credit is called for.

Big Red is playing pretty well. They aren’t making the French shake in their boots, but it’s been a show for the home fans. Smile, cheer, and enjoy the ride for as long as it shall last. I think there are still a couple games left.

That Highly Comprensive Canada – China Review, in Full

By Benjamin Massey · June 6th, 2015 · No comments

I just watched Christine Sinclair score a stoppage time penalty to win a World Cup game in Canada.

That is literally a dream come true.

Fourth Place

By Benjamin Massey · June 5th, 2015 · 1 comment

holyschmidt-webBack in December I had quite a bit of Irish coffee and decided, having watched the Women’s World Cup draw, that Canada was likely to finish fourth in the tournament. Now it’s a day before kickoff and that’s no time to get wishy-washy.

That’s right. Fourth place for Canada at home in 2015, tying our best-ever finish and only four years after coming dead last in Germany 2011.

Back at Christmas this prediction came off as crass optimism, but fortune favours the bold. Gregor Young, no pie-in-the-sky optimist but a genuine expert, also predicted Canada would probably reach the semifinal. The statistics nerds at 538 have Canada as the fourth-most likely team to reach a semifinal. The consensus is that Canada will win their group, and from there we have as clear a run to the semi as you’re ever going to get at a senior World Cup. The possibility of a medal beckons.

To an extent this is a reflection of confidence in Canada’s form. While obviously not on the level of Germany, France, or Japan, Canada has done well hanging around with the second-tier countries and maybe even solidified their position. Both Koreas and Brazil are backsliding, England is improving but Canada just ran them off the pitch in a friendly, and while teams are moving up to that level nobody has moved from the second tier to the first since Japan half a decade ago. I say, without hesitation, that this team is better than the one that went into the 2012 Summer Olympics, and yes that team had a lot of luck on their side, but the bronze medal game was the only time they won a match they deserved to lose.

Consider Canada’s group opponents. The much-ballyhooed loss of Chinese top scorer Yang Li is overrated: Li was a non-entity on the world stage until she started pumping four-goal games past ultraminnows at the Asian Cup. They also remain something of a mystery, and one such team always springs a surprise in a women’s tournament. But they’ve had a very rough 2015, including an Algarve Cup that saw them lose to Portugal for God’s sake and finish dead last. Their team is mostly young and inexperienced at the top level. They’re four years away. Dangerous, but Canada should beat them.

The Dutch, in their first World Cup, have gotten much hype, particularly for 18-year-old ace forward Vivianne Miedema. Certainly they have made big strides and they are widely pegged as a tournament darkhorse. But UEFA can flatter to deceive: the panoply of groups and an overwhelming number of countries not taking women’s soccer seriously mean that a team like the Netherlands can stroll through qualifying without playing anybody serious. The Dutch did a good job against Italy but the Italians have lost relevance on the women’s side. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t look past the Netherlands, they have a very well-balanced attack, but they too are awaiting their prime years and I can’t make them favourites to beat Canada yet.

That leaves New Zealand, John Herdman’s old employer. Another team moving up in the women’s game, but they had a long-ass way to move. Their qualifying consists of showing up. In pre-tournament preparation they’ve been hosed by the Americans, drawn nobody above the level of North Korea, and beat Denmark. They gained respect for losing to Japan without too much dishonour but hell, we’ve done that. Too good not to take seriously but no, I’m not losing any sleep over the kiwis. This group could go to anyone but you must say, home field advantage and all, Canada really ought to win it.

If Canada does so, they face the easiest draw out of anybody in the knockout stages. The travel will be easy; we’ll never have to leave western Canada. It’ll be hard for our opponents, who fly all over this huge-ass goddamned country. Finish first, and we start with a round-of-16 match in Vancouver (before an insane BC Place crowd) against a third-place team from groups C, D, or E. The best team likely to come out of that is Australia, who Canada really should leave for dead. That leaves the quarterfinal, still in Vancouver, against the winner of the second-place team in group F and the second-place team in group B: barring upsets, this is most likely England and we know what Canada can do against them. Obviously there’s a possibility that Camille Abily slips on a banana peel in a group game and we instead face eleven furious Frenchwomen firing a fusillade at Erin McLeod for ninety horrifying minutes, but England is the most likely.

In the semifinal real teams start to show up, and we probably get Japan. Again Canada has the travel advantage, needing a short flight to Edmonton, but this is Japan so we probably lose that one. The other semifinal teams are likely to be Germany and the United States, so we face the Americans in a third-place game and I really want to say Canada will win that, but we probably won’t. Fourth place. Done.

That said, if we spring just one upset… but no, no, I refuse to look so far ahead.

There is a strange meta-narrative about this tournament, where we who pay attention to the women’s team seem to expect that casual fans expect Canada to win the whole thing. I haven’t seen such vulgar ignorance on display. Talking to random non-soccer-people around town, I’ve yet to hear a sentence more optimistic than “we’re pretty good at women’s soccer, aren’t we?” I’ve said “fourth place” a number of times and people have been pleasantly surprised. The real mass narratives have been things like “these are very nice women who work very hard” and “Christine Sinclair is amazing”; puffery, but it has the merit of being true. We may not be the most soccer-literate but we aren’t dummies, we know we were both unlucky and very lucky indeed to win that bronze in 2012, we know that Sinclair turns 32 during the World Cup and has faced soccer’s toughest sledding for almost fifteen years, we know, in short, about where we belong. So if Canada does go down in a semifinal, even if they go down pretty hard, I expect a lot of good support for an attempt to win bronze. Bronze has done well by us.