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Stuck on the bench

While soccer's elite chase World Cup glory, Canada gets red card for its long-term development

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Canada's latest World Cup hopes ended in humiliation after the squad was thumped 8-1 by Honduras in 2012.


Canada's latest World Cup hopes ended in humiliation after the squad was thumped 8-1 by Honduras in 2012.

Canada's exclusion from the World Cup party can be traced to Oct. 16, 2012.

That was the day the men's national soccer team, on the cusp of taking a massive positive step, tripped and lost 8-1 to Honduras in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier under a warm Central American sun. Given the stakes, it's a score that defies logic. The loss not only squashed Canada's hopes of advancing to the next round of qualification -- a different 'hex' was in store for the Maple Leaf -- it also sent the program into a nosedive.

Chew on these points of suffering:

-- At the time of the crushing defeat, Canada sat 61st in the FIFA world rankings. Twenty months later, spinning with uncertainty and forced to essentially start over again, the squad is mired in 110th spot, tied with renowned soccer power Bahrain.

-- Canada has played in 15 international matches (three in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, 12 friendlies) since the loss to Honduras. The record in that time: five draws, 10 losses, zero wins. Underlining this drop to irrelevance is the fact Canada has only scored three goals in those 15 matches.

Pull out two red cards and cover your eyes, folks.

If you haven't heard, the World Cup kicked off in Brazil Thursday, lifting the lid off a month-long smorgasbord of global futbol frenzy. Across this nation, millions of people will gather in front of television screens to consume every thrilling second, pulling for either their country of origin or an adopted interest.

Again, Canada cheers from the sidelines. Its only appearance in a World Cup occurred in Mexico in 1986. That was 28 years ago. Now it seems improbable the men's squad will ever find its way back to that stage.

"We lost a generation of soccer in this country," said Bobby McMahon, soccer analyst for Rogers Sportsnet. "Meanwhile, the rest of CONCACAF has made significant strides."

On the strength of the Mexico appearance, the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) was formed in 1987. It gave the players a place to play and the national program some real stability. Beyond the borders, things were looking up heading into the 1990 World Cup, too, as FIFA banned Mexico from participating after they were found using overage players in an age-group tournament. There was an opening in the CONCACAF qualifying group.

Canada couldn't overcome Guatemala.

"That was absolutely a death blow to Canadian soccer," McMahon said. "Canada was poised to be in back-to-back World Cups, which arguably would have saved the CSL. The momentum, the good things that have could come from that, would have moved Canadian soccer forward. Instead, it all went south when Canada couldn't get past Guatemala in the qualifier (in 1988). The CSL folded soon after (in 1992) and the Canadian Soccer Association never really recovered.

"Everyone was too focused on the present and not on the future. And look what happened."

With no real present to celebrate, today's focus is on the future. Participation in soccer in this country is at an all-time high, with nearly 900,000 registered, a fact soccer officials proudly point to when the health of the game is raised.

In terms of how this turnout relates to the men's national program, well... it doesn't.

"There's very little quality resulting from that massive participation because Canada doesn't have the infrastructure or investment in place to identify the next wave of young talent," offered Tony Nocita, a former national player and current head coach of the FC Winnipeg Lions in the Manitoba Major Soccer League.

"It all starts with leadership. The CSA made so many (national team) changes over the last decade or so that coaches at the provincial levels are always starting over, it seems. There's a real disconnect. Talent for the national team needs to be identified at the nine-, 10- or 11- (year-old) level, but there just aren't enough good coaches to do that. If we're getting to kids at 14 or 15 years-old, we've missed the boat already."

That leads to another issue: how does Canada convince its young skilled players to forgo opportunities in soccer-centric countries and remain committed to a national program -- when said program is stuck in neutral?

That's one of many questions facing administrators. The answer involves patience.

"Anyone thinking that this is going to turn around quickly is not being realistic," said Héctor Vergara, executive director of the Manitoba Soccer Association. "Sure, we all hope it happens, but even if improvements happen without long-term solutions would that be any better for the future? I doubt it."

With no national pro-league system to work with, Vergara points to needed investments by the CSA in development centres. Money needs to be spent on identification of talent, and that talent needs to be subject to high-level coaching. Stability at the top is a must. These are not new ideas.

Quick and cheap fixes to get Canada up and running again aren't out there, and suggestions this country is four or eight years away from coming off the bench and getting into the global game again are foolish.

It's a given the national men's program will never compete with the top teams in the world.

That doesn't mean it can't challenge for an invitation to the big party, though.

"My hope is things are headed in the right direction," McMahon concludes. "Let's start there."

Where do you think Canada is going wrong in developing a world-class soccer team? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2014 A8

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