Canadian soccer men have a chance that doesn’t come along often
The last time Canada’s men’s soccer team won an international trophy they had to win a coin toss, flipped by future FIFA whistleblower Chuck Blazer before he grew his giant beard and arranged a Manhattan apartment just for his cats. The FIFA guys had wanted to do the coin flip in private, and the Canadians said no way; the gangsters who ran soccer then, the Blazers and Jack Warners, were not to be trusted.
“(Then coach) Holger (Osieck) was incredibly German about it,” says Craig Forrest, the star goalkeeper for that 2000 Gold Cup team and a longtime commentator on soccer in Canada. “He was like, ‘Not a bleeding chance.’ And he was right there (for the toss), because he knew they would screw us.”
Nowadays, Canada Soccer might worry more that they are screwing themselves. On Sunday in Las Vegas, Canada’s men will play the United States in the final of the Nations League, a recent creation designed to reward more countries with more games. It also serves as a qualifier for the Gold Cup, and for the 2024 Copa America, the only major international tournament Canada could play between now and the 2026 World Cup. Canada’s men’s coach, John Herdman, has said it for a while: To grow in world soccer, Canada needs to play games outside of the messy, backwater confines of CONCACAF, of Central and North America.
Copa America is the chance, but first, the Nations League final awaits. This US team is deeper than ever, despite two red cards in a semifinal against Mexico, and is the favourite; Canada, though, is the reigning CONCACAF champion. This would be the first tournament trophy win for the men in 23 years.
Back then, things were different. The federation was a bare bones outfit, but after the coin flip Canada escaped the group. Nobody but the US or Mexico had won the tournament, which at the time was the apex of CONCACAF, and nobody expected Canada to do anything. Forrest was incredible, though, and the team came together. Forrest was playing for West Ham, and kept having to call his manager, Harry Redknapp, to tell him he wouldn’t be back right away.
“We had Manchester United coming up and the goalkeepers were all injured, and I’m like, ‘Don’t worry, we’re playing Mexico, I don’t think we’ll probably get through, I’ll see you by Wednesday,’ or something,” Forrest says. “And then next thing you know, I’m phoning him: ‘Harry, we’ve f—ing won!’ And he said, What, you never win anything! I need you back here.’ I said, ‘Sorry.’ And after the next one, he said, What the hell is going on? You might as well go win it now.’ ”
Jason deVos, the team’s captain and Canada Soccer’s current interim general secretary, fondly remembers Blazer and Warner weren’t smiling when they handed the trophy to him and Forrest. It was a high-water mark. But the water receded.
“We qualified for the Confederations Cup and we went to Japan and played in that competition, but we never really used it as a springboard to do something better, because there was no real plan for how we were going to get from point A to point B. to point C,” deVos says. “So without that plan, and the resources to support that plan, it would just kind of die on the vine.
“And that’s the thing that I’m probably most regretful about and most frustrated by, is that it wasn’t that we didn’t have the talent or the ability. It was that we didn’t have a plan to be able to maximize those resources, and maximize the potential of that group of players.”
That’s where deVos sees a difference now, or at least, some of one. He called the Gold Cup serendipity: It just sort of happened, and Canada’s men spent nearly 20 years getting roughed up in stadiums throughout Central America. Canada Soccer, now, is different.
“We had a group of guys that worked their socks off for each other,” deVos says. “But if I look back and I compare it to this group of players, this has been very deliberate. John has mapped this out from day one. And it’s been by design, and they’re here on merit, because this was the plan to get them to this stage.
“And that’s why this is just so exciting for this group of players: because this isn’t the end either.”
No, but it’s not guaranteed to be just one chance among many, an unbroken rise. Sources in Canada Soccer have long warned that money is tight later this year, and that the federation may not have money for competitive windows in September and October. Given the burn rate of Canada Soccer — they burned through half of the $12-million cash reserves in 2022 — plus the rate-limited revenues dictated by the agreement with Canada Soccer Business that diverts any rise in sponsorship or broadcasting revenues, bankruptcy is not even out of the question at some point.
While he won’t address that specifically, deVos has spoken out about the fiscal challenges facing Canada Soccer before, even in the time of the two best soccer generations the country has seen.
“It’s definitely a problem that we have to try to solve,” deVos says. “And again, it would be a failure on everyone’s part to not properly resource both our men and women, because we have a group of players on both sides who know what it takes to win.
“It’s one thing to have a lack of resources for your senior national teams. It’s quite another to have next to no resources for your youth programming. And that’s going to have an impact 10 years down the road.”
One thing deVos and Forrest both emphasize is that those chances don’t come back. The Gold Cup has sat alone on the men’s shelf for over 20 years, shining brightly, gathering dust, and the Canadian men will have another chance at hardware Sunday, and a memory. May as well grab it while they can.
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