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.

FC Edmonton and Canada’s Doom

By Benjamin Massey · November 24th, 2017 · No comments

Steve Kingsman/Canada Soccer

If FC Edmonton can’t make it in Canadian soccer, nobody can.

Go to Steven Sandor for the news, if you missed it: FC Edmonton is ending operations as a professional team. Their Academy, which has contributed to both the men and women’s youth national team, will continue for now, but against expectations the first team has pulled the plug before the North American Soccer League has.

As the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact are proving, Canadian cities can make it in American soccer. All you need are brilliant marketers from New York telling you that this is the authentic experience, replete with Italian and English national teamers, and people in a Canadian city will come out in droves. There doesn’t need to be anything Canadian about the experience except the accident of geography; in fact it’s better than there isn’t, beyond a couple homegrown players you keep to wave the flag and visit children’s hospitals.

But Canadian soccer? Meaning not branch plants of an American corporation but clubs owned and run by Canadians for Canadians, which not only say that they’re going to develop Canadian talent but go out and do it? Where the attraction is not “Don Garber tells us this is major-league” but a Canadian-bred culture? If you could sustain that at the professional level, Edmonton would have.

FC Edmonton was not perfect. In their early years they had stadium problems. The team was bad; in seven seasons with a league where it was easier to make the playoffs than miss them, the Eddies played two road playoff games and both stank. Because their stadium is owned by the City of Edmonton the Eddies had mostly Friday and Sunday game days throughout their history, hurting attendance. In 2017, the one year they got a meaningful number of Saturday games, they averaged 3,822 fans a game for Saturdays and 3,085 the rest of the week, meaning that the Eddies perish after their best-ever season at the gate. Now isn’t that funny?

Not that it matters. 3,822 fans a game would be, what, a third of the way to breaking even? Clarke Stadium was too small to sustain professional soccer these days and almost never sold out anyway. This is why I take no comfort from the back door Tom Fath has left open, that he’ll join a Canadian Premier League if his team can be sustainable. Unless Paul Beirne has the money to buy Fath a soccer stadium and the magic to change the country’s culture, that condition cannot be met. The sole hope for FC Edmonton is that the Faths go back on their word and sacrifice more for a dream crazier than co-founding the NASL.

This is not a criticism of the Fath brothers. After eight years’ setting money on fire for the sake of Edmonton despite not particularly being soccer people, they should have the absolute, unconditional, and eternal loyalty of every fan in Canada. If they’d rather close up shop than immolate more of their children’s inheritance with no end in sight, they’ve earned that right.

Tom Fath was a regular on the sidelines at home games, mingling with fans, chatting to players, rocking the hell out of an Eddies golf shirt whenever weather allowed. He even came to a supporters match between Edmonton and Whitecaps fans in Vancouver, not to make a big deal of it (I don’t know that he introduced himself) but just to enjoy what he’d helped create. In every detail except one the Faths were perfect owners: they weren’t oligarchs who could put a 15,000-seat privately-funded grass stadium by the North Saskatchewan River.

What didn’t they try? Local heroes like Shaun Saiko, Chris Kooy, and Antonio Rago helped the Eddies get into the playoffs for one of those two games. Attendance stank. The local heroes were dropped and replaced with Icelandic internationals and Ameobis. Attendance stank. They plastered LRTs and billboards with advertising. Attendance stank. They went to a more grass-roots approach. Attendance stank. The stadium needed new stands and a big screen, so the Faths paid for them though they didn’t own the facility. Attendance stank. Video quality the first couple years was unacceptably poor, so the Faths bought a design company in a successful bid to improve the show. Even in their last season, when games were broadcast on Facebook rather than television, FC Edmonton games were consistently among the best-produced in the NASL. Attendance stank. Criticize the details, as fans of failed teams always do, but the Eddies were not 90% of the way to success. They were 33%.

Unlike most Canadian cities Edmonton now has a perfectly decent soccer stadium. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup brought new artificial turf Clarke became an unimpeachable place to watch a game. Intimate, lots of parking, easy transit access, simple but effective facilities. It had a history of soccer and, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup, a world-class event that made the sport look good. It began with a hometown star, Saiko, and ends with a nearly-hometown star, Nik Ledgerwood. The ownership was everything I have described and more. These weren’t the Edmonton Aviators, with all their hopes staked on immediate success. They were in it for the long haul and proved it.

A fan who would support a Canadian soccer team if it won lots and had a first-rate stadium and was attractively marketed and had Fernando Torres in a fan of the show, not Canadian soccer. His money counts the same as anybody else’s, but the only way to lure him is the MLS method: to sell out, completely, down to the very bottom of your soul, and make the exercise pointless for anything other than profitmaking. To turn your community club into Molson, right down to being owned by an American conglomerate, because the Americanness is fundamental to the success.

Tony Lewis/FC Edmonton

“But it worked before!” True, with the USL Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps living long and happy lives. The Impact were owned by a man who combined the Faths’ willingness to lose money with a fanatical devotion to soccer, were subsidized by government with advertising and generous stadium terms, and gave away tickets like water. The Vancouver Whitecaps were usually close to going broke, performing the soccer equivalents of living in their dad’s van. But more importantly, they played in an age where professional soccer could be credible on a much smaller budget than today, and they had their close American rivals. Seattle, Portland, Rochester. It’s the same old song, though performed more prettily.

The sole exception of this generation has been the Canadian women’s national team, an intersection of ability and charisma not seen elsewhere in Canadian sports. Even they continue to be defined, by and large, by their relationship to the United States. Why did the 2016 Brazil bronze medal count for less in our collective consciousness than the 2012 bronze when 2016 was a more impressive achievement? Because in 2012 we went through the United States and in 2016 we did not.

Maybe Canadian teams can thrive as semi-professional or high amateur outfits, in the way the Thunder Bay Chill have for seventeen years, and that League1 Ontario, the PLSQ, TSS Rovers, Calgary Foothills, and the Victoria Highlanders will hopefully continue to. Your players make a pittance if anything, you take the bus everywhere, if you run a youth academy it’s considered perfectly reasonable for parents to pay for it, life is not easy but it’s easier. There are enough fanatics to make that work, in some format.

But full, national-league professional men’s soccer? With an all-Canadian identity and Soccer United Marketing’s millions against them? Oh I’ll support the Canadian Premier League if it ever kicks off, FC Edmonton or no, and I’m sure you will as well. We Canadian soccer fans are used to lost causes. And maybe the MLS fans have the right idea. Their teams are fake, but at least they survive.

Putting the Team Second

By Benjamin Massey · March 5th, 2017 · 1 comment

Ville Vuorinen/Canada Soccer

On a dreary Friday morning, far from and unseen by almost all of her fans, Christine Sinclair scored. She does that a lot. On this occasion, Russian forward Anna Cholovyaga dropped a long way back and attempted a backpass to… well, it’s hard to say who she wishes it went to, but anyway it went to Sinclair, and she buried it with the nonchalance of Kutuzov against Napoleon. The only thing easier would have been to knock away a failed clearance while unmarked, which come to think of it is how she scored against Denmark on Wednesday.

Sinclair, 33 years old, now has 167 international goals, 17 behind American legend Abby Wambach for the all-time lead in the history of international soccer. Two have come at this year’s Algarve Cup and both were cheapies. But the only reason we phrase it that way is because we compare the goals to the good old days when Sinclair could never capitalize on an awkwardly-handled Deanne Rose cross because there was no Deanne Rose to cross it to her. If she’d been doing this all her life we’d call her a “poacher” and count it in her favour, but because we’re used to her being the team, notwithstanding a Melissa Tancredi having the game of her life or a Kara Lang having moments of inspiration between months of injuries, it seems like an insult. This is how genius, as it fades to mere intelligence, becomes its own condemnation.

There are asterisks all over the record. Male soccer players play many fewer international games than women. Sinclair has 253 senior international appearances, no Canadian man has more than Julian de Guzman’s 89, and the leading male worldwide is Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan with 184. The top men’s international goalscorer of all time is Iran’s Ali Daei with 109, dozens away from the both-genders podium. In short women’s soccer is one of the few athletic fields where men are statistically behind the women, and with the enormously different economics of their respective games they will never catch up.

Whichever of Sinclair or Wambach finishes on top will probably be there forever. The age where large, lone strikers can write the record books like Charles Dickens being paid by the word are passed. Alex Morgan caught the tail end of the glory days and possessed a preternatural innate talent, and is still over a hundred goals behind Wambach with no prospect whatsoever of catching her. Brazil’s Marta has 105 goals in 101 caps, hurt by her association’s indifference to the women’s team outside Olympic years, but for all her great early seasons she’s no record threat. Truly excellent young strikers no longer score such circus numbers thanks to tactical developments, and while the men’s record book is full of Arab players who got loads of opportunities against mediocre opposition, this for obvious reasons will not affect the women’s game in the foreseeable future.

The Sinclair/Wambach duel is one for history. It’s like when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were fighting for scoring titles: they were both obviously historic greats, but whichever one of them set the highest mark was never going to lose it.

Wambach scored her 167th goal at the age of 33 years, nine months, and ten days, on March 12, 2014 against North Korea (at, coincidentally, the Algarve Cup). On the day of her 167th Sinclair was 33 years, eight months, and 19 days old. Moreover, and I do not pretend to be objective when I say this, on quality I would take March 2017 Sinclair over March 2014 Wambach.

But Wambach infamously hung on too long, all-but-forcing the United States to carry her to another World Cup victory in 2015 when on merit she certainly should have been dropped. Sinclair is already overall less effective than Janine Beckie and has the reputation of a woman who will not put herself ahead of the team. The alarm clock will go for her eventually, and it’s hard to imagine her playing boardroom games to keep her minutes up. Essentially tied with Wambach at her age, Sinclair may not have the same advantage in her autumn years.

The day will come, if it has not already, when Canada will have to ask whether it would rather Sinclair passes Wambach or Canada wins soccer games. Promising Canadian attacking players such as Deanne Rose and Ashley Lawrence have been shuffled around the formation, buying Sinclair time, but this will not last forever. Another promising forward who’s scored plenty in the NCAA, Alex Lamontagne, just made her senior debut. At any time her own development or Canada’s wide defensive frailty might necessitate moving young Deanne Rose to the centre of the park, where Sinclair currently roams. Against the weak Russians, Beckie was involved in several good chances, but she was substituted off for Lamontagne while Sinclair went the full 90. This probably isn’t strategy, since Canada faces the also-feeble Portuguese on Monday and only after that will meet a real team in whatever their placing match is. If anything, Canada should have pumped goals past the mistake-prone Russians to improve their goal difference. But coach John Herdman apparently wanted Christine Sinclair to get them.

This could have hurt the team, though since China and Sweden drew later in the day Herdman probably got away with it. But he was right.

Dedication to the individual rather than the whole runs contrary to what we know we should think, in sports and in life. English writer E. M. Forster, with his usual straightforward contrarianism, said “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” This was most famously quoted by Soviet spy Anthony Blunt when, still unexposed, he defended not reporting friend and fellow-traitor Guy Burgess. In his context the inevitable first thought is that either Blunt did not know what sort of swine his “friend” Burgess really was, in which case protection reflected poorly on him, or that he did know, in which case it reflected even worse. We now know it was the latter: Blunt was himself in the pay of totalitarianism and by supporting Burgess he was supporting “his” country, the Soviet Union. So Forster’s attitude, that of the individual ahead of the institution, did not really apply, and yet the ordure that sprayed from the wound of Blunt’s treachery caught Forster as well.

Yet even those of us who would dissent as a rule have to admit that Forster was, maybe not right, but right enough. His aphorism is unusual because it’s wrong in general but right in detail. Most of the time the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but sometimes the needs of the one trounce them both. It is impossible to define when those times are. Sometimes you need to fire the pleasant but incompetent employee to help save the jobs of six others. But once every blue moon you’ll give up the ship to save one man, and there is no formula to tell you if a dilemma is coming until it arrives.

The object’s own opinion does not always matter. Part of why we honour Christine Sinclair is because we know that if we grabbed her and said “answer now: world record or World Cup?” she’d say “World Cup!” without hesitation. And we’d believe her! Like Cato the Younger, she would subordinate all to the health of her people, and if we insisted on raising personal ambition would not sneer, but remind us when the time came to pay the price. She’s the one we can trust above all, to act for us rather than for herself, and so we should honour her especially. It is the contradiction where sincere public-mindedness in an individual means that individual should get more of our favour.

Every four years, somebody wins a World Cup, and every four years, somebody wins the Olympic Games. Huge achievements that will survive the players who won them. But however great such a victory is, give it a few years and there’ll be another one for somebody else. Galt FC won Canada gold in men’s soccer in 1904, but to the casual or the foreigner it’s an excellent trivia question. So it will be if Canada wins the World Cup in 2019: our grandchildren rubbing foreheads over the Trivial Pursuit board, mumbling, “I know we won it somewhere in there…” A heck of a thing, immortality of a kind, but not Mount Olympus.

I want players like Sophie Schmidt and Desiree Scott and Ashley Lawrence to wear gold medals. I want them to win, lots. I want them to have it all. If a soccer team made up of good, dedicated Canadian men or women wins a world championship, that should be the greatest day of my sporting life. But if Lucifer popped up at the crossroads and said “Ben, I will let you choose. Either a senior Canadian soccer team will win the World Cup, or Christine Sinclair will become the leading scorer in international soccer history,” I’d decide for Sincy. She wouldn’t. If she found out I cast the deciding vote, she’d probably be pissed. That’s part of why I’d vote for her. Nobody said philosophy should be easy.

Magic Realism

By Benjamin Massey · November 14th, 2015 · 1 comment

I got my Voyageurs scarf in 2008. It was my first serious V’s gathering and I remember it oddly well, taking up the woolen red sacrement in a time before functioning websites and easy $20 orders. We were at the Peel Pub in Montréal. It was a remarkable day, no less remarkable for what followed. A march through the Underground City, our voices ringing off the concrete, our bodies jamming the turnstiles good enough for rush hour but not for us. A heady confidence that faded as marched into Stade Saputo, immersed in Honduran kits, in blue and white thundersticks provided by an allegedly Canadian sponsor. A confidence that disappeared entirely as hope became horror. The fights and railing flips, the security as impotent as my country. Tomasz Radzinski went off, Canada went out, and our doom was assured. Montreal, Honduras, 2008. The horror moment. Even 8-1 wasn’t quite that bad. My scarf saw it all. A baptism of blood.

That scarf went around three Gold Cups, a few more World Cup qualifiers, two Women’s World Cups of assorted age levels, and more friendlies than I like to count. It soaked the beer of three countries and innumerable cities from Vancouver to Havana. It was more precious to me than I thought a scarf could be. It was untradeable. If Russell Teibert himself asked for my scarf in exchange for an autographed game-worn kit and a trip to Florida, I’d think about it for multiple seconds before I said no.

Tonight, as the final whistle blew in Canada’s 1-0 victory over Honduras in Vancouver, I threw my hands up, and when I pulled them down that scarf was no longer there. I was quite sober. It was not around me, nobody had snatched it, I had not thrown it. A victory I had been tearfully awaiting for seven years, in a game Vancouver had needed for eleven, and my old scarf had gone to be with the soccer gods. It’s a pathetic expression of superstition and self-absorption but it is, to me, true.

There is an atmosphere around Canadian soccer which, in its most exalted moments, can only truly be called mystical. When Christine Sinclair nearly defeated the United States in 2012 she was more than our best-ever player, she was the avatar of our country, imbued with our vices but more importantly our virtues when we most needed her. When the Canadian men lost 8-1 to these Hondurans it was the exact mirror image, with our lack of genuine confidence (as opposed to arrogance), and our fear and our lack of personality coming out in a horror show redeemed only by a cracking goal by Iain Hume, one of the undisputed Good Guys. That, too, was mystical. Mythology has always dwelt more on Hades than heaven.

So allow me to indulge in a little magic on this glorious night. Canada hasn’t really done anything yet – three points are great but it’ll take at least a couple more such wins for us to even see the next round. On the pitch this is good but a long way from decisive.

Psychically? Even mystically? This is everything. My scarf has gone, but to the most glorious of causes. El Salvador awaits.

A Brief Word on the TFC Travel Restrictions

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · 1 comment

Bookmark this page. I am defending Toronto soccer OOOOOOOLTRAs. It will not happen again.

Many serious supporters dislike “pyro” – flares and smoke bombs – at a match. This is more than their right. If you wish to stand and chant with your view unobscured and your lungs unblocked, you must be able to. It is a widely-held aesthetic, and in many cases medical, desire. It does not make you any less dedicated or intense. This is obvious.

Moreover, pyro can be annoying, and even unsafe, when wielded by unregulated imbeciles or inexperienced men. This goes for flags and even standing itself. The drunk yobbo smoking out his own keeper is a shame to himself and his group.

However, an also-large number of supporters love well-deployed pyro, both participating and watching from afar. It is common in matches around the world, almost invariably without ill effect. Set up with knowledge and preparation it is no more dangerous than waving a huge floppy flagpole for ninety minutes. In North America real mass supporters’ culture is still very young, and who can predict whether pyro will be a part of it in 2065?

The way to deal with it is to permit pyro, in an organized supporters’ section. This has two key advantages. First, those who dislike it may stand in another supporters’ section. Second, by giving responsibility for pyro to dedicated people, you contribute to a safe environment. Knowing that openness is good for a productive relationship, the supporters will have every incentive to self-police for those lone loons with a flare smuggled in their anus. The loons themselves will be less motivated, for the atmosphere they want already exists. Useful safety equipment like buckets of sand will be as easy to come by as a banner, and knowledge on safe support will be passed on openly from veteran to enthusiast.

The way not to deal with it is to insist on rigorous control by franchise and league front offices, then when repression inevitably leads to haphazard smuggling and crimes of opportunity, collectively punish a mass of supporters which was 99% incapable of stopping it even if they did know in advance, while fans who expected something else entirely choke and curse. And then to add insult to injury, using those very supporters (and very possibly that very pyro) in your marketing.

I would not smuggle pyro into an MLS game even if I were still a supporter in that league. I think you shouldn’t. But we have a mass supporters culture now, and the more you stomp on them for no good reason the more they’ll resent it. Wouldn’t we all? And with all that resentment pyro becomes something far worse than a display not everybody likes: it becomes a way for the disaffected and sometimes dumb to stick it to the Man who doesn’t give a shit about them as more than a cash machine.

You can have a proper supporters’ section. Or you can have franchise-funded cheerleaders. If you try to turn one into the other, for the sake of the twee faux-Britishness you imagine soccer moms want to clap along to, these things will happen. And if you then react by collectively punishing the innocent, you show even the rule-abiding what you really think of them.

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.

Fine, Buy That Scarf (With Reflections)

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

There’d be no need for this article at all if I hadn’t tossed off a Saturday morning quickie using the Whitecaps scarf scandal to promote southwestern British Columbia’s cup finals weekend. Funny ol’ world. A few hours after that post went up the Whitecaps announced they’d donate the proceeds from their controversial “Kings of Cascadia” scarf to the Vancouver Street Soccer charity[2]. A sensible compromise in time to save the Portland Timbers game (which the Whitecaps won), everyone was happy, good job.

However, I wish to raise three matters today.

First, how in God’s name were people calling this controversy “#ScarfGate”? I realize the “-gate” suffix has achieved a post-ironic cachet where it’s used simply because it annoys so many of us, but didn’t “scarf scandal” in that first paragraph look ten times better? If you must hashtag it in nine characters go with “#ScarfScam”. Bear that in mind if it ever becomes relevant again. Why didn’t I write this when it could have done some good? Because I’m shit, that’s why.

Second, consider a précis of what happened. The Cascadia Council – the group of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver supporters who protect the Cascadia Cup after the 2013 trademark dispute – has a legal agreement with MLS wherein, if the Council fails to object to a proposed use of the trademark by MLS within a certain period of time, permission is automatically granted. Because the Cascadia Council e-mail listserv/spam filter/POP3 daemon/Christ knows what stopped working, the Whitecaps supporter representatives never heard about a proposal they would certainly have objected to and therefore, while the Whitecaps were (and are) legally clear to sell this scarf, many supporters were outraged.

We still haven’t heard the full story (what sort of e-mail breakdown? Are we sure… no, are we sure… that the e-mail didn’t go through but nobody read it?) And as I said on Saturday, this version of events leaves a neutral observer with a lot of sympathy for the Whitecaps. I’m not at all a neutral observer and I still calmed down a hell of a lot when I heard what “technicality” the Whitecaps had used to produce this scarf. It wasn’t a technicality; legally they did their duty and were absolutely in the right. The moral question is an open one and, honestly, there’s room for reasonable people to disagree.

That said, the Whitecaps knew very well that the trademark of the Cascadia Cup was the single most sensitive issue among their most passionate, influential supporters. They further knew this sensitivity was shared by the Timbers Army, who might well show solidarity over any exploitation. The Whitecaps front office is in constant communication with their supporters, and these channels (official and unofficial) were not used. If it was me, and I were genuinely interested in a respectful, cooperative relationship with my supporters, the supporters who make my entire marketing campaign possible, and I knew that I was about to try and profit off the one thing in the world they were most concerned about me profiting off of, I would have been very careful. I would have at least asked a representative “so, what do you guys think of the Cascadia scarf?” during one of our cold pizza meetings. To do otherwise would have been to risk the perception that I was sneaking it through, trying to crack the dam so the tide of commercialism could come rushing in. If I wanted my supporters onside and happy, this would have been absolutely the last perception I’d want to risk.

When the scarf dropped, the Vancouver Southsiders suggested a compromise similar to the one eventually adopted: the scarf would be sold but the proceeds would go to charity. This was not adopted until the supporters took the matter public, made their stand, and put pressure on the club hours before one of their marquee fixtures. This pressure produced the desired result. In short, the Whitecaps, having wounded their supporter relations for something like the billionth time, appeared content to let that wound fester until said supporters turned the wheel. The eventual outcome was highly creditable to all parties involved, maintaining both the supporters’ and the front office’s rights while boosting a charitable organization long supported by club and fans, but the way that outcome arrived was somewhat unsatisfactory.

Third, we should appreciate how close the near-revolt came to being a fiasco, for reasons entirely the supporters’ own. The averted sanction was almost preposterously mild. The Southsiders would not buy that scarf, encourage others to do the same, and sit down in silence for the first fifteen minutes of the Portland game. For the final seventy-five they’d be free to go nuts, as usual. I was worried this would be too soft and thank God I was wrong, but it was so short, so moderate, and so obviously aimed at the suits rather than the players that at least there was no room for anyone to object.

Naturally, many people objected. Among the most dedicated and hard-working supporters, support for this idea was not quite unanimous but probably as close as you’ll get in such a diverse group. Some dissenters made serious, cogent arguments against a protest on this particular issue, arguments that deserve respect. But among the less committed members of supporters sections, there was actual anger.

Let me quote from a popular post on the Vancouver Southsiders Facebook page. I promise I’m not cherrypicking: this post attracted huge comment and was “liked” as many times as the Southsiders’ founding president’s appeal in favour of action. All grammar and word choice as in the original:

I’m kind of embarrassed to be a Southsider at the moment. All I hear and read is how to protest a, albeit poor, business decision. Are you actually suggesting a silent protest?!?
I respect the Southsiders business practices and property. It has NOTHING to do with the players. Don’t buy the scarf, don’t buy beer, don’t buy food, don’t buy merchandise. All great protests. But, not cheering?!? Not making the atmosphere in our home stadium, in our first Cascadia match, ELECTRIC?!?
How preposterous!!!
Are we more worried about our relationship with the FO or how we look and act in the players eyes.
We will garner more respect with more proactive and respectful protests.

This was far from the only expression of this sentiment, right down to being “embarrassed” in a group standing up for its rights. Many said, while the issue was still in the balance, that they would break the sit-down strike on the same flimsy grounds: “it’s nothing to do with the players!”. Some were unaware even of how the Southsiders voted for their board members, but regardless felt their opinions on this subject were strong and informed. Had the Whitecaps called the supporters’ bet, we can’t be sure if their solidarity would have held. It would have been shattering if it hadn’t, a demonstration that we all roll over in the end.

It’s inexaggerably obvious this issue was nothing to do with the players. Likewise, when those same players came within an ace of going on strike a few weeks ago, it was obviously nothing to do with the fans. In both cases, an aggrieved party tried to get justice from a massive corporation by putting pressure on them in the strongest possible way. Only a dim-witted infant could have been confused by that, and in fact if you held your breath in the social media shitstorm for long enough you would have heard such infants saying “just get a deal done m8 ur business shouldnt hurt teh soccr”, as if there was no principle at stake whatsoever.

Anything which might impair these cretins’ ability to shout “BOOM!” on goal kicks for ninety minutes is “business” and therefore unacceptable. Questions of justice, of supporters’ culture, of being exploited are utterly irrelevant. Taking a meaningful stand is inherently a bad move because it shows disrespect for the players. The “players”, in this universe, are uninformed and incurious morons who live in cardboard boxes and take everything that ever happens as a personal affront. They hear silence around the cenotaph on November 11 and think “what did I do?” They are unaware that their supporters are humans and bewildered by the idea that they might have interests or desires. If the supporters section took fifteen minutes off, these mythical players would think “how dare they!” and not “hmm, I wonder what is going on.”

Such belief is a transparent facade for “hey, I’m just here for the party, don’t try to harsh my buzz.” We’re seeing this sort of thing around Major League Soccer. Even the most passionate and pressed-upon supporters groups are capable of only limited action, because as outraged and dedicated as their most important members may be there’s a mass of complacent selfishness behind them restricting their options. This has led to continuing encroachment on supporter privileges in many cities. Any “don’t buy merchandise or beer if you don’t like it” so-called sanction is unenforceable even by public pressure, ineffective, and ultimately still gives MLS what it wants.

Silencing the atmosphere at a major derby match is a public statement which reaches ears otherwise unengaged in club-supporter politics, and would-be scabs face the spotlight as they stand and shout while surrounded by seated silence. This is precisely what those “think of the players!” opponents dislike about it. But it is also, as we have just seen, a good way to get results.

I’m not promoting myself as a paragon of supporters’ culture here, and would be swiftly shot to ribbons if I did. We’re all ultimately dumb, selfish creatures who stand up and shout abuse at strangers because we like it. Making that good time bad to prove a point is a sacrifice, and not one that should be treated lightly. Standing up to a front office that’s exploiting you may, in fact, be the only valid time for a supporter to stop supporting. However, for such gestures to have any value they must be made in solidarity. Excuses to invalidate any serious protest show a selfishness that has no place in the collective culture of a soccer supporters group. If you’re that sort of self-absorbed fan then, by all means, attend all the soccer games you like, but don’t pretend you’re part of something larger than yourself.

(notes and comments…)

Four (Non-Playing!) Predictions for MLS in 2015

By Benjamin Massey · March 7th, 2015 · 3 comments

Many people are making their predictions for the coming 2015 Major League Soccer season. Unfortunately, I have no idea who’s good, who’s bad, who’s the best newcomer, whether Landon Donovan is dreamy or the dreamiest, or any of the other topics your garden-variety North American soccer writer preoccupies himself with.

However, I do have opinions. So here are four (non-playing) predictions for the coming MLS year.

MLS will continue to pick on its supporters. Back in January Los Angeles Galaxy supporters the Angel City Brigade were sanctioned by the league and the club[1] for the heinous and unprecedented crime of throwing streamers onto the pitch at the MLS Cup Final. For added justice, their punishment is also double jeopardy for earlier offenses that had already been dealt with. During the first eight matches of the season the Brigade will have no “supporters privileges” (a phrase which, itself, speaks volumes) and are forbidden streamers for all of 2015. If you think this overreaction is because the Galaxy supporters made MLS fans look too undignified in the league’s marquee event, you are probably being sensible. And if you then asked “hey, does MLS’s highlight video of that match have a bunch of approving shots of the Angel City Brigade with streamers and drums?” you’ve clearly seen these collective punishments before.

This very standard action by MLS met a very standard reaction from supporters. Various groups said “we stand with the ACB!” while spending huge sums on the single entity that majority-owns the Galaxy. The Brigade responded with “sanctions” of their own[2] that amount to not buying beer or merchandise from the Galaxy for four games. (Spend like mad at the fifth, of course!) Still buying tickets, still going to games and cheering their hearts out, still giving MLS much of what they want. That’ll show ’em.

So business as usual in Major League Soccer. Supporters are great when they look good on video and do coordinated, family-friendly chants, but corporate disapproval may come from anywhere and the suits’ vengeance has no appeal. Naturally there will never be any suggestion that, if MLS insists supporters exist to entertain its billionaires and promote its product, said supporters should find another outlet for their money and passion. The great cycle continues.

Watch for the next spit in the face of its most dedicated fans from Don Garber and company! It’s a surer sign of spring than the flowers opening.

MLS will continue to be sleazy. Another easy one! We are all familiar with the way MLS’s ill-defined allocation rules shift and twist when a player everyone’s heard of wants to go to a certain city. It’s one of the great mysteries of the universe how no team ever says “actually, Clint Dempsey, I think you’ll find you’re playing for Chivas USA now.”

Recently MLS and their players’ union agreed upon a collective bargaining agreement. The deal has not been made public; nothing unusual in that. But there was a total blackout over official MLS sources during negotiations that came very near to ruining the start of the season. When Gary Bettman locks out the NHL every few years he at least has to face the press; meanwhile, in MLS the official league site is gagged and a handful of dedicated beat reporters need to wrangle not-for-attribution tidbits from players and agents just so fans can have some idea what the hell’s going on.

Meanwhile, news from New York: MLS is sabotaging the NASL New York Cosmos in their bid to get a privately-funded soccer-specific stadium.[3]. MLS interference has been rumoured for some time but went on the public record courtesy New York Assemblyman Francisco Moya. This on top of throwing an expansion team at Atlanta to try and kill the NASL Silverbacks, continuing to poach the NASL’s best teams whenever possible, and working with a USL that, despite soothing words, still views NASL as an inferior upstart[4]. It’s a different side of the same coin: MLS isn’t interested in growing its game, or in growing supporters culture, just in growing its business. And the thing about a single-entity league with no promotion or relegation is that it is all one business.

MLS punditry is easy. If you identify their lowest possible motive, you’ve more than likely identified the correct one.

There will be more bad news for Canadians playing on Canadian MLS teams. About ten years ago the Vancouver Whitecaps hosted the Toronto Lynx to open the 2005 USL First Division season at Swangard Stadium. As was too typical for the Lynx it was a bore 0-0 draw. The only thing interesting about that game, ten years later, is that fifteen of twenty-two starters, and twenty-one players overall, were Canadians[5].

Tonight, when the Vancouver Whitecaps host Toronto FC, each team might start one Canadian. The Montreal Impact have already been busy, with two CONCACAF Champions League games in which no Canadians saw the field. With World Cup qualifiers and a Gold Cup this year, our top professional teams fly the flag of the United Nations. Again.

I know very few of you give a crap. But after years of the Whitecaps telling their fans “it is completely impossible to sign a Canadian from Europe! They demand payment in elephants made of gold!”, Sporting Kansas City recently signed standout Canadian international Marcel de Jong. It’s not difficult, they just don’t want to.

In Vancouver some fans who do pretend they care point to the Whitecaps signing a larger-than-usual number of players from their Residency program as a promising omen. It takes time to develop Canadian talent and the Whitecaps have only had twenty-nine years. Surely, surely, these young Canadians will be given the opportunity to break into the first team like Phil Davies and Bryce Alders… shit.

The new MLS reserve teams will be the most overrated development of the year. Reserve soccer is useful, obviously. There’s no replacement for a real match, and even if it’s not for the full stakes of a first-team game before 20,000 fans that experience does matter. Nobody denies this.

But as you know, this season the Whitecaps and many other MLS sides have moved their reserve teams to the newly-rebranded United Soccer League. Some people seem to think this particular incarnation of the MLS reserve program is going to be magic. Playing the Seattle Sounders reserves is one thing, but playing the Seattle Sounders reserves and the Harrisburg City Islanders, whoa, buy World Cup tickets now lads!

I don’t mean to pick on USL, who know their own business. Nor do I mean to pick on MLS (this one time), since they have a reserve program in an established, independent league that won’t get bored and go home like MLS’s reserve divisions always do. But Jesus, some people’s expectations! Some fans seem to think that playing MLS reserve games has suddenly become a ticket to the Premier League just because the name of the league has changed. “Three new professional teams! Whole new opportunities for our players!” I have a spreadsheet of the Whitecaps’ 2013 reserve players. Seven Canadians are on that list who were then over twenty years old and not on MLS contracts with the Whitecaps. How many of them are getting first-team minutes anywhere in the world right now? None!

Gagandeep Dosanjh had a promising start with FC Edmonton until his knee decided to stop working; that’s as close as you’re going to get. A few of those players — Yassin Essa, Brett Levis, Derrick Bassi — may be on the 2015 Whitecaps Reserves roster. Levis only got a cameo, but Essa and Bassi have been part of the Whitecaps Reserves pretty much since we joined MLS. Three years of reserve soccer is not what player development’s usually about.

I can’t speak for Toronto or Montreal, but in Vancouver the Whitecaps have filled out their reserve roster with available or interesting Canadians since they joined MLS. It’s the sensible thing to do. And it has led them nowhere. More games will help, obviously, but it’s no bloody revolution. The opposition will, if anything, be weaker, since MLS teams will be unable to send backup goalkeepers and bench players away to Richmond the same weekend they’ll be needed on the first team’s bench.

By the way, the attendance won’t be great either, not even for USL. Reserve team attendances around the world almost never are[6]. It’s curious that many of these same fans assume that the MLS/USL partnership spells certain doom for the NASL when about half of the USL’s independent clubs are shaky, it’s impossible MLS will make a profit on these teams, and they’ve scrapped their reserve program for financial reasons before.

(notes and comments…)

Professional Soccer’s Responsibility to Canada

By Benjamin Massey · December 3rd, 2014 · 1 comment

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(notes and comments…)

The FIFA Men’s World Rankings are Useless

By Benjamin Massey · October 24th, 2014 · 1 comment

There is no value whatsoever in the FIFA men’s world rankings.

This is the sort of thing people always say, and maybe we believe it in the abstract way we believe in fourteenth-century Mesoamerican pottery. But mostly we don’t act like it’s true. FIFA released a new batch of rankings yesterday and sure enough a million news sources pumped out a million articles and a billion fans said “wow, Canada’s ranked behind St. Vincent and the Grenadines now?” In practice, to fans and media, FIFA’s rankings aren’t dismissed as easily as a Raelian press release.

So let me explain why, if I see you expressing genuine interest in the FIFA men’s world rankings again, I am going to smack you upside the head*.

The formula for allocating men’s ranking points is very simple and FIFA spells it out clearly. For our purposes, the two most important factors are a) teams gaining a base three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss, and b) the large multipliers depending on the importance of the game. At the lowest end of the scale, a friendly is worth no bonus, while a FIFA World Cup match sees the total number of points earned multiplied by four[1].

You already see two excruciating flaws. First, the system rewards only results, not performance. If you are, say, Costa Rica, and went to the World Cup and got some points even after being outshot a billion to nothing, you will get a load of points and the team you beat will get none. (Another good example: teams get two points for winning in a penalty shootout, even though a match that went to the shootout is a draw by definition.) This is not a reflection of how good your team was, it is a reflection of how lucky it was.

Meanwhile, an extremely credible defeat, no matter what the circumstances are, is worth nothing. Even Colombian commentators seemed to agree that Canada’s 1-0 loss to Colombia boosted their opinion of the Canadian men’s national team. As far as the FIFA rankings are concerned we might as well have lost 8-1.

Second, the multiplier for playing in a competitive match means that individual games can gain disproportionate weight in your ranking, while teams are rewarded simply because their confederation schedules more competitions for them. This is hardly a system for determining your place in the soccer world, is it? And how much respect do you really deserve for a well-timed hot streak in a Confederations Cup? According to FIFA, “loads and loads and loads.”

The resulting numbers for all matches in the past four years are added up, with older games being reduced in weight, and that’s your ranking. So suppose you’re Canada. You play competitive games every two years: the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup and the quadrennial World Cup qualifiers. Meanwhile you’re being compared to countries like Cuba, who can play both of those events plus the biennial Caribbean Cup. Or El Salvador, playing in the also-biennial Copa Centroamericana. This means that your rivals have many more chances to rack up the big ranking points, a problem redoubled if you play friendlies against strong teams like Colombia or Australia from which even a terrific performance is unlikely to get you a single point. And those rivals have the points they earned whooping on Dutch colonies showing up on their records for four years. And if you’re unlucky enough to be drawn into a Gold Cup group with a team like Guadeloupe or Martinique, who are members of CONCACAF but not FIFA, you don’t earn any points: Canada’s last win in the Gold Cup was in 2011 against Guadeloupe, and the Canadian ranking didn’t benefit.

Since we’re all Canadians, let’s look at it from a purely CONCACAF perspective. Take the recent qualifying for the Caribbean Cup. This is some of the weakest soccer on the regular men’s international calendar: amateur soccer players from countries with the population of Oshawa. But because it is an official CONCACAF event, it receives a points multiplier of 2.5. And three points for a win against Montserrat means a lot more than no points for a loss to Colombia. As a result, since qualifying kicked off in May the dregs of the Caribbean shoot up the charts in a manner wholly unrelated to their ability. Teams like Canada don’t get to benefit from these points, since we aren’t eligible to play in the tournaments. So the CONCACAF rankings get jokey.

Here is a table with the highest point-earning game for some of the CONCACAF teams ranked ahead of Canada this month (remember: Canada earned zero points for taking Colombia to the brink.)

Team Opponent Competition Ranking Points
Costa Rica 3 South Korea 1 Friendly 349.35
Trinidad and Tobago 1 Antigua and Barbuda 0 Caribbean Cup qual. 765.00
Antigua and Barbuda 2 Saint Lucia 1 Caribbean Cup qual. 490.88
Dominican Republic 3 Saint Lucia 2 Caribbean Cup qual. 490.88
Haiti 4 Barbados 2 Caribbean Cup qual. 318.75
St. Vincent and the Grenadines 1 Curaçao 0 Caribbean Cup qual. 331.50
St. Kitts and Nevis 1 Haiti 1 Caribbean Cup qual. 172.13

That Costa Rica result at the top of the page is genuinely impressive. Winning 3-1 against South Korea in Seoul is no mean feat. But in FIFA terms it’s not half as good as beating Antigua and Barbuda 1-0 at home in a Caribbean Cup qualifier, as Trinidad and Tobago did. Antigua and Barbuda has four players on professional first teams; their captain, Quenton Griffiths, plays with USL Pro’s Charleston Battery. That Costa Rican win is a bit better than St. Vincent and the Grenadines beating Curaçao 1-0. Curaçao, population 152,000, is not a sovereign state. And los Ticos only wish they could beat Saint Lucia, as two countries ranked above us did: a stronger version of that Saint Lucia team played Canada twice in 2012 and was metro league quality.

Again, these are just games from the last month. If we went back further we’d see plenty more ridiculousness. The Caribbean Cup proper, which starts in November, is going to see more big gains for shitty countries: watch for Cuba, already wrongly ranked ahead of Canada, to profit from beating on Curaçao. The Caribbean Cup is a biennial tournament, so dinky little minnows enjoy the spoils of smacking each other around twice a World Cup cycle while Canada hopes for the occasional draw against Panama to keep us looking respectable. Then when Canada falls down the rankings, as we are mathematically almost certain to do, the press starts wringing its hands.

There is one reason to ever pay attention to the FIFA men’s world rankings: it’s used to determine seedings for World Cup qualifying. Yet even that’s marginal. Face it, if Canada has any aspirations to play in Russia it shouldn’t matter whether we’re drawn against Panama or Guatemala. Last time out Canada, though sheer luck, got drawn into two of the weakest groups we could have hoped for, and we know what happened. Until the hex the CONCACAF qualifying format is actually very generous for a confederation that has only two frightening teams plus whereever Costa Rica ranks in its quest to be either the most surprising or most disappointing team in world soccer depending on the phases of the moon.

If you want a decent way to rank the world’s soccer nations, try the World Football Elo Ratings. It’s not a perfect system but it’s a lot better than FIFA’s chicanery, and if you check their latest you’ll see Canada is ranked 88th in the world and tenth in CONCACAF[2]. This is a little low in my books but not very, and it’s a damned sight better than anything FIFA has to offer. So shut up about their unusable rankings. Thank you.

(notes and comments…)