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Sorry, nation: Soccer mess is my fault

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I’ve finally found out who’s responsible for the sorry state of Canadian men’s soccer — I am.

Hang on, no, for once it’s not because I am such a total poop as a referee, though I’m sure that that somehow plays a part in it too.

No, it’s because when child the elder was eight and playing community centre soccer, and there was no one to coach, I stepped forward.

The convenor told me that if I didn’t, the team would be disbanded and my son would be sent home, and we would get a refund. When I said I wasn’t qualified, he asked if I was breathing, and it turned out to be the sole criterion.

Now, my ego is not such that I believe I’m solely responsible for the poor international showings of Canadian men’s soccer teams, or for the fact that our women’s program is not the best in the world — yet.

But I and people like me are responsible, for having volunteered to fill a void when there was no one else with experience and expertise and skill and a wealth of soccer knowledge willing to coach little kids at the community centre level.

I know my guilt because of a series of Twitter exchanges I had with Jason deVos, former captain of our national men’s team, around a blog he’d written on the TSN website. In that blog, deVos decried the harm done by untrained volunteer coaches in the development of our nation’s soccer players.

During our exchange, deVos asked me if I would also accept having untrained volunteers teach our children, instead of certified teachers, because he believes the two are equivalent.

Um, no, I wouldn’t, though I have written about the use of untrained volunteers as substitute teachers when certified subs aren’t available, particularly in rural and remote Manitoba. But I digress.

As passionate as I may be about soccer, maybe I’m the only one in Canada who doesn’t think recreational kids’ soccer and the public education system are of equal importance to the future of the nation.

I told deVos that I would have stepped aside in a heartbeat if there had been better-qualified coaches available. I would have loved for both my son and daughter to have had the coaching from day one in house league that he had the year he was on the provincial team, but those people are in short supply. I don’t remember seeing any of them hanging around River Heights CC back in the day, hoping someone would let them help out with a U-9 rec team.

I’ve told the story umpteen times about the dad who told me at the hockey rink that he’d been bitterly disappointed to see that I knew nothing about soccer; he told me that he’d expected that by the time his son was 10, he’d be coached by highly qualified people.

The dad himself had played professionally in Europe, and so I asked him if he’d work with the kids in the spring, handle the soccer side if I did all the drudge work and paperwork and endless phone calls and emails and scheduling and getting the uniforms and balls and stuff, and dealing with the parents who go regularly off their meds under a full moon... and he looked at me with incredible scorn, and said he was far, far too busy in his professional life to do that, harumph harumph harumph.


I’ve written numerous times about the delight of dealing with coaches, as I go into my seventh year of refereeing. Despite the ones who yap and chirp incessantly, and those whose default setting is anger and contempt, those people are very much in the small minority. The two or three each year who go into genuine rages, so that I can’t sleep that night when I get home, that just absolutely drain you — but I digress again.

A whole lot of you out there are going to start coaching this year, if and when the snow ever goes. Maybe you know the rules, maybe it will take a while. You go to the clinics, you put in a lot of time, you go through the security checks, you do it for all the right reasons and you do it for the kids, and because you get involved, people like Jason deVos will tell you, the development of Canada’s best soccer players will be thwarted.

Maybe somewhere in this city there’s a nine-year-old kid who might not make the national team or turn pro, because at age nine he or she got coached by volunteer moms and dads learning as they go along.


Maybe that kid will have fun, and at 11 or 12 will make the developmental team in the area and play competitively, and maybe eventually in premier or on the provincial team get the kind of coaching that deVos wants.

News flash — John Herdman is too busy coaching Christine Sinclair and the rest of our national team, to be on the pitch with 10-year-old rec players in Whyte Ridge or Garden City or Norwood come whenever in May the fields dry.

Ultimately, I suppose, it’s up to the Canadian Soccer Association — they can somehow stream out the potential gifted soccer players when they’re six or seven, and hand them over to whatever handful of coaches has the top credentials, and turn away everyone else...or put up with people like me who stepped forward in 1996 so that my kid and 14 or 15 others could enjoy themselves running around a soccer field, even if I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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