Soccer standoff between Canadian players and association sparks deja vu in former star striker

The standoff between the Canadian men’s soccer team and Canada Soccer over pay and benefits is sparking a strong sense of deja vu in former Canadian star John Catliff.

In 1988, the striker led national men’s team players in a similar collective action against the national sport organization, formerly called the Canadian Soccer Association, threatening to strike over poor pay on the eve of a World Cup qualifying match in Florida.

“It’s just really disappointing that decades on we’re still having the same sort of Mickey Mouse issues from our association. We should have learned a bit in the last 35 years,” said Catliff. 

“There’s just no excuse for the fact that we’re sitting here at the 11th hour negotiating a contract that should have been done months ago, if not a year ago.”

On Monday, players announced they would resume training, even though a deal has not been reached. The squad is scheduled to host CuraçaoThursday at B.C. Place.

On Sunday, the squad refused to play a World Cup warm-up game against Panama in Vancouver after refusing to practise on Friday and Saturday. 

The players say they want more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization’s leadership, and World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a “comprehensive friends and family package” for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that begins in November.

“We want to work together with our organization, but the relationship has been strained for years,” their statement said. 

Canadian national men’s soccer team player Richie Laryea, right, and teammates carry coffee as they enter their hotel after their match against Panama was cancelled due to a labour dispute. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sports business expert Tom Mayenknecht said the conflict and negative publicity is costly, and will have future ramifications if not solved quickly.

‘Self-inflicted injury’

“Obviously there is immediate financial loss with the game being cancelled and the expenses not going away. Then there’s the reputational damage, which to me, depending how long it goes on, is even more costly in terms of brand value,” said Mayenknecht, host of The Sport Market radio show.

“This is a really unfortunate self-inflicted injury,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Canada Soccer cancelled a game against Iran that was to be held at B.C. Place after facing strong criticism, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for inviting a nation whose military shot down a Ukraine International Airlines plane in 2020, killing all 176 passengers, including 85 Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

The June 5 Iran game was then replaced with the Panama game.

Fan Darren Alexander bought tickets to both and had travelled from Victoria with six friends to take in the Panama match when it was cancelled two hours before kick-off. He’s awaiting refunds amounting to $575 and says it’s “outrageous” the players don’t have a signed deal in place.

“The supporters, we all are on the players’ side on this. We just feel like [Canada Soccer] is a generation or two behind. A lot of older folks in the organization are not up to speed, obviously, and clearly are not making not the best business decisions.”

Alexander said finding Team Canada merchandise is problematic as well, something that in an era of unprecedented success on both the women’s and men’s side raises further questions about Canada Soccer operations. He said it took him close to a year of trying before he finally was able to find an Alphonso Davies Canada jersey.

“They’ve really dropped the ball in that regard over the last few years,” he said. “[Merchandise] has been a known issue, even with the women’s team during the Olympics when they won the gold.”

In his decade with the national team, Catliff said the Canadian Soccer Association rarely put players first. As an example, he cites being sent home after blowing out a knee playing in Honduras in 1985.

“They flew me through seven airports to save money … Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula to Belize to Houston to Denver to Spokane to Vancouver …  All on crutches.

“That’s my personal example of lack of quality and professionalism,” he said. “These players are standing up for the next generation and group of players, just like I did.”

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