Canada’s preparations for this year’s World Cup were plunged into further turmoil as players went on a de-facto strike in Vancouver ahead of the country’s hastily re-arranged friendly with Panama on Sunday.
John Herdman’s squad refused to train on both Friday and Saturday in an apparent protest over compensation and player perks for Qatar 2022, with months of fruitless talks reaching a head. The players and Canada Soccer are reportedly still markedly apart on demands with an initial report from TSN suggesting the players had asked for a 40% cut of World Cup revenues with the association offering just 10% of a Fifa windfall that is likely in the $ 10- 15 million range.
Fresh from the debacle sparked by Canada Soccer initially arranging a friendly against Iran, two years after 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents were killed when a passenger plane was shot down by Iranian forces shortly after leaving Tehran, the weekend’s startling developments brought further ignominy on an association long blighted by dysfunction and underperformance.
Herdman defied expectation and history to guide the Canadian men to their first World Cup berth in 36 years, the team spearheaded by exciting young talent like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David topping Concacaf qualification and winning a huge wave of new fans along the way.
Sunday’s friendly was due to be the team’s first reappearance on home soil since they sealed qualification against Jamaica in Toronto in March. However the fate of the game, scheduled to kick off at 4pm local time (7pm Eastern), remained unclear.
The team had been due to train at the Vancouver Whitecaps’ base at the University of British Columbia early Friday afternoon. With less than an hour’s notice, that session was pushed back by almost three hours before being later canceled entirely. Saturday’s training session was also scrapped.
The standoff comes soon after the US Soccer Federation reached a groundbreaking deal with its men’s and women’s national teams that will see them share revenue from their respective World Cup campaigns and be paid identical amounts for appearances and wins. That agreement will see American players take a combined cut of over 80% from World Cup revenue.
Late Saturday night, Canada Soccer disputed the initial reports and said it has proposed that the men’s team would take a 30% cut of prize money with the same amount going to the women’s team and the association taking the remaining 40%.
“To be clear, the Men’s National Team demand was for 75-100 per cent of the World Cup prize money,” the statement said. “The Association, in an effort to adhere to the principle of pay equity, proposed 60 per cent of the Fifa World Cup prize money to be split between the two National Teams.”
That player sources and association sources are indicating wildly different demands and offers only served to emphasize how messy the situation is. Players are reportedly also irked that they will receive just two complimentary tickets each for their games in Qatar and families will have to pay their own way. Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis and its interim deputy general secretary flew into Vancouver late Saturday evening with Sunday’s game still very much in doubt.
The embarrassing mishandling of the Iran booking had left Herdman and his squad with a three-game window that contained only Concacaf opposition, Panama followed by Nations League games against Curacao here in Vancouver and an away date with Honduras. By contrast Canada’s Group F opponents Belgium, Croatia and Morocco were all testing themselves against fellow World Cup opposition in this window. Continental rivals Mexico and the US had both booked a pair of friendlies against qualified teams.
“Every minute together is crucial as we prepare to work collectively to give us the best chance to perform against some of the world’s best on the biggest stage,” Herdman said in advance of the Panama game, which had been due to see Davies’ return to a Canada shirt for the first time in 2022 and potentially a first cap for exciting teenager Luca Koleosho, who recently made his La Liga debut for Espanyol.
Herdman’s achievements at the helm came on the back of some herculean solo work sourcing and assembling a support staff. But hints that the association wasn’t moving in step with huge strides on the field appeared. Combined with the women’s gold medal glory in Tokyo last summer, the men’s progress had created a huge demand from fans for Canada replica kits but they remained out of stock for a signifiant time.
Former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest had told the Guardian this week that Canada Soccer “felt understaffed” and that the men’s qualification coming on the back of Olympic success had in effect created a false impression that the national association had its house in order.
“The only difference has been John Herdman, who has managed to guide the players through all of the challenges and I don’t think enough has changed,” Forrest said. “And now they’re going to the biggest event on the planet times 10 and you have to be ready for that whirlwind coming at you from all sides.”