Canada dropping the ball

STEVE BUFFERY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

Jim Brennan, a national team member and Toronto FC midfielder, is determined to put the boots to the theory that, when it comes to the FIFA men's World Cup, Canada forever will be on the outside looking in.

It has been 22 years since Canada's first and only appearance at soccer's big dance, but Brennan believes the current national team is the most talented side to emerge in years, and is in good shape to qualify for the next World Cup, two years hence in South Africa.

At the same time, Brennan said the team will begin the qualifying process for the 2010 World Cup this June, starting with a home-and-away series against Caribbean side St. Vincent and the Grenadines, with the proverbial one hand tied behind its back.

"Regardless of how much of a shambles the Canadian Soccer Association is in at the moment, we feel that if we don't qualify (for the 2010 World Cup), we'll be letting ourselves down big-time," Brennan said.

The Toronto FC captain said the problem with qualifying comes back to the CSA, the governing body of the sport in Canada. Brennan has little faith in, and little respect for, the CSA, and he is not alone in his sentiments.

Former national team captain Jason De Vos also has described the CSA as a shambles, saying: "We need to draw up a completely new model because the existing one certainly isn't working."

Bruce Twamley, an ex-national team standout and Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, said: "Whatever success we have is despite the CSA."

That the CSA is a target for criticism, and blamed for the national team's failure to qualify for the men's World Cup, is nothing new. But that criticism has grown from a whisper to a full-blown scream as soccer becomes more popular in increasingly multicultural Canada, and fans begin to question why the team can't seem to earn decent results on the world stage and qualify for the World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet next to the Summer Olympics. (The women's teams have had better results internationally, although many soccer nations do not yet dedicate balanced resources to their women's programs.)

The frustration over the lack of results on the men's side has resulted in a serious call to action. A group of concerned fans has formed the Canadian Soccer Federation, an outfit determined to "execute the role of the national governing body" in Canada if the CSA doesn't get its act together, and fast.

"If they really care about the good of the game, they will get on board with some of the ideas that we have put on paper," CSF chief Dino Rossi told Sun Media. "We haven't reinvented the wheel. We've just put down what the practices are across the world (with other FIFA-sanctioned federations). And that is what we need here. We have to make some bold moves and if the CSA is not prepared to make bold moves, then step aside."

The CSF has drawn up a mission statement, vowing to "establish and nurture a culture of unparalleled transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, empowerment and respect."

Rossi told Sun Media that one doesn't need to look any further than the Fred Nykamp affair to see the CSA's ineptitude and why there needs to be a house-cleaning. Nykamp, a respected former head of Basketball Canada, was hired as CSA chief executive officer last May. He was then told in July his appointment needed approval of the CSA board of directors. One month later, the board, made up of the executive committee and presidents of each provincial organization, voted not to ratify Nykamp's appointment, and he was out. CSA president Colin Linford, who was instrumental in bringing Nykamp to the organization, resigned. A few weeks later, Nykamp launched a $1.75-million lawsuit against the CSA. Two months ago, an out-of-court settlement was reached. The amount is said to be substantial -- and ultimately avoidable if Nykamp's hiring had been handled properly in the first place.

Former national team goalkeeper Craig Forrest, arguably the greatest international Canada has produced, described the CSA to Sun Media as a "complete mess" and said the fundamental problem is in its structure.

"The association is at the mercy of the individual provinces," said Forrest, now a broadcaster with Rogers Sportsnet and FIFA ambassador for SOS Children's Villages. "The provinces have more power than the CSA."

The CSA is structured in such a way that the professional staff has had to answer to the board, made up largely of representatives of the provinces. And Rossi said the provinces are more worried about their own fiefdoms than they are of the good of the national program, and that has caused infighting and a lack of movement on team initiatives.

Forrest has been frustrated by the CSA's inability to attract adequate sponsorship for national teams, and for grassroots programs, despite the fact soccer is the largest participation sport in Canada. Another frustration has been the CSA's inability to get the ball rolling on a professional or semi-professional Canadian league.

"Our national team players should be household names, but they aren't," Forrest said.

Even when the CSA appears to do the right thing, it has often backfired, such as the hiring of Nykamp.

The CSA won the right to be host of the 2007 under-20 World Cup. But the feel-good story of that event somehow turned into another source of frustration for Canadian fans as the host side not only failed to win a game, but was unable to score a goal. And though most of the games were well-attended, the tournament reportedly lost close to $1.7 million, though a CSA official said FIFA will cover any shortfall. The bottom line is that the under-20 event did not bolster the bottom line for the CSA, as many hoped.

Insufficient funds have been a constant worry. Part of that problem is the federal government's reluctance to fund amateur sport federations the way other wealthy nations do. Another problem has been the CSA's inability to attract sponsors, and that often is felt by national teams attempting to organize games and training camps in preparation for major competitions.

Brennan is frustrated over the national team's preparations for World Cup qualifying, particularly the calibre of opponents prior to the first game against St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Canada, ranked 62nd in the world by FIFA, has friendlies scheduled against Estonia (124th in the world) on March 26, Panama (69th) on June 6, and likely another game against another non-soccer powerhouse. For Brennan, that's not good enough.

"You look at every other country, they're playing top teams. We seem to be playing Third World countries," he said.

The U.S. national team, ranked 28th in the world, is scheduled to play Spain (fourth) and likely Poland (24th).

"The only way you're going to get better is to play the best. The Americans do it, and they're getting better, whereas we seem to be falling back."

The best result by a Canadian men's side (other than defeating Honduras 2-1 in St. John's, Nfld., to qualify for the 1986 World Cup) was winning the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup. (Forrest was named tournament MVP). That side was coached by Holger Osieck, a German, who was hired in 1999. Osieck was considered the right man for the job, particularly after the Gold Cup win, but he resigned in 2003, reportedly over frustrations with the CSA and because of complaints lodged by some players that he was too demanding and autocratic. Osieck was replaced by former Canadian team standout Frank Yallop, a popular choice with the players. But he, too, resigned in 2006 to take the coaching job with the MLS Los Angeles Galaxy.

For months, speculation ran rampant that the CSA was about to hire Brazilian Rene Simoes, a world-renowned coach who guided Jamaica to an unlikely appearance in the 1998 World Cup. But, again, just as the Simoes hiring seemed to be a formality, Canadian Dale Mitchell was hired instead, after the CSA board refused to ratify the agreement with Simoes, who reportedly demanded the job as technical director as well as coach, and had refused to place a Canadian on his staff.

A number of players and officials expressed frustration that Simoes slipped through the CSA's fingers and raised further questions as to whether Mitchell is the right man. Many believe he is not, although he has his supporters. Mitchell, after all, coached the Canadian team to the goalless, winless three games at the under-20 World Cup.

To many, his hiring is just another CSA blunder.

"Don't ask me that," Brennan said when asked if Mitchell is the man to lead Canada through the World Cup qualification rounds. "Dale's in and seems to be doing a good job at the moment. But only time will tell."

Others aren't so diplomatic. Mitchell, who played for Canada at the 1986 World Cup, has been criticized for employing conservative, overly defensive tactics. Rossi said the CSA dropped the ball in hiring Mitchell, whom he described as a "safe but uninspired" choice.

"A country like England hired an Italian coach, and a Swedish coach before that," he said. "All kinds of foreign coaches are coaching all over the world. Canada exports hockey coaches all over the world. But we're a developing country in soccer and I think the CSA is a bit naive and a touch arrogant to think we have the depth of talent to lead our national team to the World Cup."

Mitchell told Sun Media he is beyond worrying about how others judge him, adding that his main focus is guiding Canada through World Cup qualifying. Nor is he consumed with the chaos and confusion that often abounds at the CSA.

"For me, it's about coaching and the players and the games. That's what I focus on," he said. "This (World Cup qualification) is a really good opportunity and I don't want to go into it with any excuses."

Rossi's example of the CSA dropping the ball was when Calgary native Owen Hargreaves opted to forsake the Canadian squad in 2000 and play for England. His parents had emigrated from the U.K. The Manchester United midfielder has established himself as a fixture with the English side and was a standout for England at the 2006 World Cup. Many believe that Hargreaves would have chosen to play for England no matter what the CSA did. Still, the disappointment lingers.

Now, another young star, Toronto native Jonathan de Guzman, is leaving Canada for The Netherlands, where has been a part of the Feyenoord organization since he was 12. De Guzman, 20, has become a key player for Feyenoord's senior side. His brother, Julian, is a key member of Canada's national team and a standout with Deportivo de La Coruna of the First Division of La Liga in Spain.

For Canadian fans, losing Hargreaves, and now Jonathan de Guzman, is a bitter pill to swallow.

"De Guzman is not going to be the last one (to jump ship). That's inevitable," Rossi said. "You don't play for the federation, you play for the country. But when the federation is a laughingstock, when you don't feel that you're being treated right, it's hard to feel any loyalty (to the national team)."


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