The state of Canadian soccer defectors

by Jared Mercer

Halfway through the World Cup Qualifying campaign this year for Canada in the CONCACAF region has brought about the usual divisions amongst Canadians regarding the state of soccer in Canada. 

With a new Canadian Soccer Association president claiming that Canada have a shot at hosting the 2026 World Cup after the success of the 2007 under-20 World Cup held in the country, some feel that Canada is undeserving and that hosting such an event should be left to the big footballing countries.  In terms of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, where if successful it will be Canada’s second foray into the tournament after a singular appearance in Mexico 1986, Canada still have a long way to go but remain in contention with two years to go until Brazil 2014.  Before resuming the campaign this fall the main discussion on everyone’s lips once again is how with all the soccer playing defectors leaving the country to play for adoptive or ancestral nations will Canada ever succeed? 

The most popular players to be on the end of Canadian finger pointing are Owen Hargreaves: born and raised in Calgary, Alberta but to British parents, he chose to play for England and was voted English player of the year in 2006. Until injuries took their toll, he was arguably one of the best in the world in his position making him the highest profile of Canadian defectors.  Teal Bunbury of Hamilton, Ontario is the other who receives the most scorn because not only is he born and raised in Canada but his father Alex Bunbury not only played for Canada but is one of the all time leading scorers for the national side.  His desertion of Canada for arch-rivals the United States has left Canadians fuming.  Lesser-mentioned defectors include Alain Rochat of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec who decided to represent Switzerland where his club teams at the time were based. He only made one appearance for the Swiss and has never returned to the national set up, but that one appearance means he can never represent Canada. A terribly poor decision, as one would imagine that the current Vancouver Whitecaps left back would be a regular with the Canadian set up. Jacob Lensky, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia made a similar decision, making one appearance for the Czech Republic before retiring in 2011 due to depression.  Outstanding goalkeeper Asmir Begovic grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and represented Canada at the under-20 level but at the senior level decided to represent Bosnia & Herzegovina.  These players hardly get mentioned when the list of shame is read out by die hard Canadian fans, but their decisions to leave the national side are all for the same reasons as Hargreaves and Bunbury.

The latest reason this topic has arisen amongst Canadian soccer aficionados is because of the possibility of losing two young and talented players playing in top European leagues, and who have yet to commit to the Canadian national team.  The first is David “Junior” Hoilett, born in Brampton, Ontario of Jamaican heritage, who is also looking into the possibility of playing for England after his time with Blackburn Rovers.  He has rejected a number of call-ups from both Canada and Jamaica and remains in international wilderness, but could be the greatest player to come out of Canada since Hargreaves.  The other is Jonathan De Guzman of Scarborough, Ontario who unlike Hoilett and others, never represented Canada at the junior level as he chose to play for the Netherlands youth sides as he plied his trade with Feyenoord of the Eredivisie before moving to Mallorca and Villareal of Spain and now Swansea City of the English Premier League.  A sticking point for De Guzman is that his older brother Julian De Guzman has been playing for the Canadian national team for over a decade and has apparently beckoned his brother to join him in the red and white rather than the Oranje of the Dutch but has yet to convince the younger De Guzman who has yet to feature in any Dutch managers’ plans.  Canada has decent goaltenders, an average defense, and a solid midfield, but has always lacked goal-scorers and if both Junior Hoilett and Jonathan De Guzman were to join up with Canada for the current campaign to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, there is little doubt in Canuck minds that these two attacking midfielders could get Canada back to the show.  Last time Canada qualified for the World Cup in 1986, they set a FIFA record as the only nation to do so with no domestic league after the collapse of the NASL in 1984 and with the Canadian Soccer League not launching until 1987.  This time around Canada has three MLS teams and soon to be two second-division teams in Ottawa and Edmonton in the new lower tiered NASL with talent being groomed from a young age.  But can the program keep this talent?  Is the national game going in the same direction as clubs, where the top teams can lure top players from less desirable markets?

The key question is what will keep Canadian players playing for Canada? Is it patriotism? Because it is “the right thing to do? Or does the Canadian Soccer Association need to have better incentives to keep such players from moving to a more advanced national team program?  Since players are not paid to play for their country, one must assume that there has to be something in their minds connecting soccer to national pride but that thing runs deep in the culture of Canada.  How does the country prevent its inhabitants from supporting their countries of heritage rather than of birth?  Canada struggles with national identity outside of soccer and this is a likely cause for the lack of recognition for the national team.  Hockey does not suffer from this problem as to like hockey is to be inherently Canadian.

The opposite end of the spectrum is how Brazilians have been popping up in other national teams like Poland, Portugal, and Croatia and any number of other small European nations in a bid to break into a national team program.  This has not been met with derision from the Brazilian public for obvious reasons.  Brazil has such a wealth of players in their talent pool that these athletes are simply competing for other countries because they can’t break into their own national team and everyone accepts this and moves on.  There is a long way to go before Canada can complain of such a problem.

Back in the 19th century, Canada had produced one of the powerhouses of world soccer, and in the first international match held outside of the UK – Canada beat the United States 1-0 in 1885.  The team toured Britain in 1888 against what were at the time the best national sides in the world, and Canada maintained a very respectable 9-5-9 record with players that had day jobs other than soccer.  Many went on to be active in Canadian politics, education, and arts.  These players were very likely born outside of Canada or were first generation Canadians, but they donned the uniform and represented their country at a time they weren’t expected to achieve anything but they were one of the more dominant forces in the world.  Players today who complain about the Canadian national team and then choose to play for another country ought to look at themselves and ask what could they have done for the national side.  How can a team get better if no quality players can commit?

Canadian soccer fans are also guilty of giving up on the national side as well, with a Toronto-centric lead taken by the CSA often cited as a cause for losing interest in the national team.  It was announced earlier in 2012 that all four Canadian men’s team home games, including three World Cup Qualifiers, this year would be played at Toronto FC’s BMO Field.  Fans spanning the large country and in soccer crazy cities like Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver are all failing to host a single game in what is becoming a more-and-more distant domestic team.  Had a city like Edmonton missed out on hosting one of the matches, perhaps not everyone would have been so up in arms but the fact that all four matches are to be played in one city has everyone not living in the Greater Toronto Area feeling as attached to teams like England or Italy as they do to their distant Canadian side.  Canadian soccer analyst Gerry Dobson decided to side with the CSA on his blog stating that it was the players who wanted all the games to be in Toronto and they should get what they want so the rest of Canada can just deal with it.

“The usual conspiracy theory is rising up once again; that this is a CSA/Toronto thing. Let me tell you right now: that idea is naive, wrongheaded, and just plain dumb.The simple fact is that coach Stephen Hart and the players want the games played in Toronto, and if that’s what they want, that’s good enough for me. The Canadian men’s team owes Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver (or Toronto for that matter) nothing. Somehow the idea has grown that Toronto is an awful place to play because home support will not be there and the games should be moved around the country. Blah, blah, blah. That is so much balderdash. Why should the games be moved around the country? The bottom line is to give the team the best chance to qualify,” ranted Dobson.  This cannot have made him a popular figure amongst non-Torontonians, but he went on to back up why games should be played in Toronto stating that Canadians in Toronto are more likely to support Canada.

 “Let’s talk about home team support around Canada, because I’ve been there, and it makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about it, and the players can relate these situations over and over again where it was so deflating to step onto the pitch and be greeted by overwhelming away support. And it’s happened everywhere. August 18, 2004: Another huge contingent of away support helped Guatemala to a 2-0 victory over Canada at Swangard Stadium in B.C. I remember chatting after the game with some away supporters draped in Guatemalan flags. They admitted to being born and raised in Canada and yet referred to us as “you guys.” “ To think that this could not happen in a city like Toronto where over half the population was born outside of Canada seems a bit preposterous.  Needless to say the Sportsnet employee is a native of Barrie, Ontario and currently resides in Toronto.

During the 2010 World Cup, there were complaints arising in Toronto that a TFC academy member was showing interest in playing for Uruguay rather than Canada at a future World Cup. It became known that the kid was born in Toronto as Twitter boards were flooded with feelings on the situation. The most common notion was that perhaps it was time to have young players commit to team Canada before they’re even allowed entry to the top training programs the country has to offer.  Whether or not that is legally enforceable or not, the notion would loom large over MLS clubs who would have to consider giving up a talent, who by all means could be the next Lionel Messi, if the player stated a future desire of representing Argentina.  Denying the success of a club would hardly be a popular decision in that boardroom, but would bode well for the CSA.  This debate also includes the dispute between MLS clubs and the CSA when American players started counting as domestic in Canada, but Canadian players take up an international slot on American MLS teams.  This is largely unfair to Canadians as it limits their involvement in their own league.  Now allowing Americans to play with Canadian teams as domestic players makes sense as Canada does not have a large enough player pool to fill all the positions on three major clubs, but to not have it go the other way doesn’t seem logical.  The CSA was particularly unimpressed as they saw the three Canadian MLS clubs as breeding grounds for better Canadian players, regardless of their on field success, and didn’t welcome all the Americans as domestic players with open arms. 

A similar problem was brewing within France at the same time as word spread that the France Football Federation was imposing racial quotas within the national team to keep the players from being all African. The concern was that not only were Frenchmen not getting on the field but they were not getting the training that was being handed out to kids with dual nationalities.  The idea was that these youngsters were “taking up space” in the French academies and then playing for their ancestral countries rather than France.  A similar position as that which is happening in Canada, and France were vilified by the press for this.  Canada does not get noticed as they are not a soccer country that the world’s eyes rest on.  According to Statistics Canada though, within the Greater Toronto Area, where a number of the top players in Canada come from and which is also the most populated area in the country, roughly 76% of people over the age of 15 were either born outside of Canada or one of their parents were.  Toronto is one of the most multi-ethnic cities on the planet, accepting large amounts of immigrants every year, thus creating soccer players who have options when it comes to representing a national team. 

As things stand, international soccer is starting to resemble club soccer more-and-more as countries with the best training infrastructure and the most prestigious programs and money will aggressively recruit top talent from other countries by means of finding them passports or citizenship.  FIFA could step in with some hard-handed regulations like you must represent the country that issued your birth certificate, or perhaps where you were raised could be another option that would please more Canadians.  A large number of Canadians within the national team and in day-to-day life were born outside the country but moved to Canada at a very early age.  It is obviously a decision that FIFA is not keen to make, nor is it necessarily a good decision and until a better plan arises, things will remain as they are. 

Sport is an interesting arena for the debate of citizenship, as many immigrants who arrive in Canada as children would be offended if they were not considered Canadian and rightly so.  If someone was moved to Canada as an infant and raised in a city like Toronto then they shouldn’t be told they are not Canadian even though they hold a passport and a childhood belonging to that country.  But when it comes to representing a country in soccer or at the Olympics, people are very quick to decide who is really from where and where do these people belong?  In Canada this does not register in most peoples’ minds as it plays out under the radar of world sport, but in a country like France with a strong soccer pedigree and immigrants from other soccer mad countries, people get fixated on how it should play out and what is an acceptable solution to the whole notion of defectors.  The most popular answer is a return to the “loyalty test” given to teenagers before they enter elite training programs but it does not seem like an acceptable solution to force kids into such a situation.  If the birth certificate notion were to pass, Canada would lose even more players to that ruling then it would to “defectors” who feel they are more likely to play in a World Cup if they change nationalities.  Here is a list of Canadian national team players who were raised in Canada and are citizens but were born outside of the country:

First of all there is the manager Stephen Hart who originates from Trinidad & Tobago but now hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia.  In goal, Haidar Al-Shaibani was born in Setif, Algeria but is now from London, Ontario; Milan Borjan was born in Knin, Serbia and is now listed as from Hamilton, Ontario; and Kyriakos “Kenny” Stamatopoulos was born in Kalamata, Greece but now calls Markham, Ontario home.  In the outfield there is Dejan Jakovic from Karlovac, Croatia and now from Toronto, Ontario; Ali Gerba from Yaounde, Cameroon now from Montreal, Quebec; Iain Hume from Edinburgh, Scotland now from Brampton, Ontario; Simeon Jackson born in Kingston, Jamaica and now from Missassauga, Ontario, and I’m sure the list goes on.  As one can see, southern Ontario receives the most immigrants in Canada and does a decent job of “converting” them to the Canadian national program.  That could be considered a point for the Gerry Dobson argument.  What works against it is that both Junior Hoillett, Jonathan De Guzman, and Teal Bunbury, the current crop of young Canadian talent who are leaving for other countries, also hail from the same region of Ontario surrounding Toronto.  Also a number of star players for Canada who were both born and raised in Canada are from other provinces with many coming from Alberta and Quebec, and yes also Ontario.  These players include: Patrice Bernier, David Edgar, Josh Simpson, Andre Hainault, Kevin McKenna, Ashtone Morgan, Paul Stalteri, Julian De Guzman, Will Johnson, Olivier Occean, and the two marquee players: Dwayne De Rosario and Atiba Hutchinson.

Forcing kids to sign loyalty agreements to Canada is not the way to go and neither is playing for your birth certificate as players like Simeon Jackson who were raised in Canada from a very young age would only be able to represent Jamaica.  What should be done is cultivating the Canadian set up so that players will want to represent Canada and will stay to train in the top programs available.  This will in turn keep more talent, make the team better, and with a higher chance of qualifying for major tournaments more players will be encouraged to stay.  We live in a very multicultural world and this does not exclude soccer, so the “problem with defectors” will not go away for countries like Canada, France, or the United States (where Andy Najar recently chose to represent Honduras).  A very strong case can be made that such countries gain as many defectors as they lose, but where the beef lies in Canada is that the ones who leave are by far the most talented.  Media however, needs to start promoting soccer to the public so that kids don’t just play soccer then go home and watch hockey, they also watch soccer on TV and have heroes and dream of lifting cups not named Stanley for their country.  This reality is not too far away as although it is still more common for the average fan in Canada to support a national team from Europe, attendances at Major League Soccer games are skyrocketing and are rather frequently higher than teams south of the border.  Last year a record five-and-a-half million soccer fans poured through the turnstiles to witness MLS games in person, and even more watched it on television. Montreal Impact and Toronto FC games being held at the Olympic Stadium and Rogers Center have drawn between 40,000 and 50,000 fans for a single match.  The all-time Canadian record is still held by soccer crazy Vancouver who had 60,342 fans attend a Whitecaps game at BC Place back in 1983. More Canadians are signing up for youth soccer programs than any other sport including hockey, so the player depth must grow and these players must become fans and believe that playing for Canada in soccer is a viable option.  A four point plan was created by former national team captain Jason de Vos to help nurture these young Canadians’ talent in soccer.

1) A head coach with a minimum of a national “A” license.
2) Regional teams for both boys and girls at the U-10, U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-18 age categories.
3) Coaches for each of these teams with a minimum of a provincial “B” license.
4) A harmonized training schedule, whereby there are no conflicts between club team and regional team. The regional team would be the equivalent of a triple “A ” hockey team, and it should be an honour for a club to have a player selected to play for the regional team, not an inconvenience.

If these steps are followed then there should be no need for the search of birth certificates or loyalty contracts.  Hopefully players with talent will want to represent Canada more so than adoptive or ancestral nations and this problem can be laid to rest.  But until Canada makes some real strong moves towards player development in a sport not called hockey, soccer fans will continue to grumble about players like Hargreaves and Bunbury.  We’ll see how far they make it in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and if that has any bearing on the next generation of players.

3 Responses

  1. Interesting piece. The semi-pertinent eligibility dispute between the Irish Football Association and the Football Association of Ireland may be of some interest to you. I’ve written some pieces on the issue here.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply