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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for and and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


Canada Not The George Best Of International Football But… “Where Did It All Go Wrong?”

Written by on March 20, 2012 | 5 Comments »
Posted in Canada

Over on ProSoccerTalk Steve Davis was kind enough to link to the article I wrote for Forbes.

Steve also put this question to me; “Why in the world can’t Canada be stronger internationally?”

In my 33 years in Canada I have met a number of  people who have followed Canadian football their entire lives.  They could offer up chapter and verse on the subject. The chapters once aired, discussed and argued over would generate more chapters and so it would go.

Which, in an ironic sort of way, is what has been wrong with Canadian soccer for years – lots of talk and very little constructive action. I would also add that for many years the game in Canada was led by people who simply deluded themselves into believing that nirvana was just around the corner. Football with unbridled popularity around the world would rub off on Canadians – someday, somehow.

The participation statistics were rolled out in an attempt to show how popular the game was in this country. But, just as in the USA, those encouraging us all to drink the statistical Kool-Aid failed to acknowledge the difference between young participants and those willing to step up and pay for the privilege of professional soccer on a recurring basis.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I arrived in Canada 33 years ago this week and I have closely followed the development of the game since I set foot on Canadian soil. Here are some thoughts and observations. 


1986 World Cup

Without the NASL Canada would not have qualified for the World Cup Finals in Mexico. Although the NASL had taken a final breath a little before Mexico the core of the 1986 team benefited from the NASL and then the 1984 Olympics.

CONCACAF was a backwater of international competition at the time. Mexico was the dominant country in the region but a whipping boy for the rest of the world. Honduras and El Salvador had made it to Spain 1982. The latter was thrashed soundly while Honduras, although not embarrassed, still finished bottom of their group. The US was not on the radar.

Canadian Soccer League

Building from the appearance in Mexico in 1986 a soccer league for Canada was to provide a platform for future WCF qualification. The league folded in 1992.  

World Cup 1990

Mexico was ultimately banned for playing over age players and so an incredible opportunity arose. But Canada fell at the first hurdle losing to Guatemala in 1988 in a two-legged qualification round. The tie finished 3-3 but Canada lost on away goals rule. Of course the USA went on to qualify and play at Italia 1990 courtesy of Paul Caliguri’s left-footed once in a lifetime strike that beat Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 in the Caribbean. (Perhaps if Paul’s shot had not gone in Jack Warner might have turned out to be a far nicer person).

Future World Cups

Canada’s performances from 1994 (I thought the 1994 was a good team) through to 2010 have got progressively worse.

Here is my take on where things went wrong.

There was never a coherent plan or strategy to overcome the failure to qualify for the 1990 World Cup Finals.

If Canada had made it to two consecutive tournaments it would have given the Canadian Soccer League a big boost and perhaps it would have attracted investors with deeper pockets.

When Canada went out in 1988 there was only the CSL to fall back on and it was never a stable league. The league was under-financed and struggled with the large distances that teams had to travel and a very low scale of pay. A TV contract with TSN guaranteed exposure for the league but never over its short existence was the league stable. It was the embodiment of the weakest link.

After the league folded in 1992 there was a paralysis in leadership from the Canadian Soccer Association. The idea of a national league kept on surfacing but more as a ill-defined solution than a concrete plan that brought strategy, tactics and objectives into play.

The regional issue is key in large countries and Canada is not only a large country but a sparsely populated one. I believe the Canadian Soccer Association made a mistake in not targeting and putting more resources into regional leagues operating in large areas of population after the failure of the Canadian Soccer League in the early 90s.

For example there was no reason why a province of British Columbia could not have produced many more players than it did given its extended soccer season.

Instead the overall quality of players eroded over the next 15 to 20 years. Although players still came through the system and eventually found a way to make a living from playing the game professionally it was outside of the country and in limited numbers.

The Canadian Soccer Association kept on waiting for another national league to develop and it didn’t happen.

The 2000 Gold Cup win by Canada was on par with Greece winning the 2004 European Championships. I doubt there is anyone in Canada who would have passed on winning the Gold Cup but a rational argument can be made as to why it  actually turned out to be a bad thing.

The success papered over the cracks and rather than looking at how Canada won the regional title – coin toss to make it out of the group stage, extra time win over Mexico, phenomenal goal keeping from Craig Forrest and incredible graft and application – the powers that be at the CSA used the win to propagate the idea that all was well and 2002 in South Korea and Japan was next up.

It did not turn out that way. Canada failed to make it past the semi-final of CONCACAF qualifying and by 2003 national team coach Holger Osiek was gone undone by a players’ revolt supported by the CSA brass.

As well as lacking the most basic of planning skills the dysfunctional system of governance within the CSA was a major shortcoming.

The office of CSA President was elected by the provincial representatives and in almost all cases the ambition of the President did not stretch any further than being elected and serving his time. In a classically dysfunctional system staff were hired but not accountable. Things went wrong staff pointed to the volunteer board who enjoyed playing with the trains far too much. The volunteer board and committees pointed to the staff.

The finger-pointing proved to be incredibly successful in as much as the great unwashed were never quite sure who the legitimate target for their rage should actually be.

Now the good news. The CSA has just undergone a major change in terms of governance. Not perfect but a massive improvement and there is now an accountability structure and a clear division of roles and responsibilities.

In the last few years there are also definite indications that there is a plan and things look better. The problem  is that it will take years for the initiatives to take root and to bear fruit. And while Canada stagnated the rest of CONCACAF was making great strides. The level of CONCACAF competition is far tougher than it was twenty-five years ago. Canada now has to catch up while the others continue to progress. A very big ask.

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5 responses to “Canada Not The George Best Of International Football But… “Where Did It All Go Wrong?””

  1. Soccerlogical says:

    I blame Nova Scotia and the increasing popularity of Donair Sauce!

  2. THe Kings of Donair – we beat them 5-1 at the nationals in 1989 in Newfoundland.

  3. Soccerlogical says:

    That’s the first step to conquering one’s demons for success!

  4. rdm says:

    I still find it very odd that in a city as diverse as Winnipeg, we don’t have anywhere near the number of donair stands or restaurants as the rest of the country.

  5. Peter Parker says:

    Terrific analysis, especially with the 2000 GC win. You could have added the 2002 GC semi final appearence as well, and the 3rd place victory over South Korea. There seems to be some cult around Osieck’s team and its style of play when in fact it benefitted from great keeping at both GCs (Forrest and then Hirschfeld) and having mostly limited skill but great engine room guys like midfielder Paul Stalteri covering every blade of grass on the field. Great for a tourney format against relatively like competition in the GC (as opposed to being outclassed at the 2001 Confed Cup).

    The biggest problem CMNT (“Voyageurs”) supporters have is overrating the abilities of the players and then said players not delivering and getting immune from criticism because it was much easier to simply throw the coach or lower profile role players under the bus. No where was that better shown than in the the last WCQ, where Mitchell was the easy scapegoat off the field or some one like Hastings or Bernier was the easy scapegoat on the field for the team’s woes. Hardly any blame was given by the supporters to the sacred cow likes of de Guzman, de Rosario, or Hutchinson, all of whom underachieved (Hutchinson, who blamed the most matches, was particularly horrid in the do or die away in Honduras)

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