Canada's last-minute soccer match cancellation has dire effects on game's new fandom

Photo: Caroline Purser, The Image Bank, Getty Images

The abrupt cancellation of a friendly match between the Canadian men’s national team and Panama due to a wage dispute has likely done severe damage to a sport seeking the next level of fandom in the country.

The game, originally scheduled for June 5 at BC Place, was one of a select few chances where Team Canada – which qualified for only its second World Cup this year (first since 1986) – played in Vancouver. In a statement before the game, players said they wanted a compensation package that included 40% of the World Cup prize money and “more transparency” from Soccer Canada.

The last minute cancellation led to about 20,000 fans – many of whom travelled from other parts of the country – to vent extreme frustration on social media. For Blake Price, co-host of Vancouver’s Sekeres & Price sports talk show and TV play-by-play announcer for the city’s MLS club soccer team, it was something he has never seen before.

“Think of Canada Soccer as a start-up; effectively, on the world scene, they are a start-up company,” Price said. “And all of a sudden, it found itself with a bunch of resumed Google execs – and there’s just this disparity of expectation of what’s supposed to be happening and how to run yourself as a big cooperation.”

Canada Soccer’s lack of success on the international front before the current squad took the world by storm starting in 2020 has been well-documented. But now, with big-name stars on the roster (led by former Whitecaps FC forward and current Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies) and success on the pitch, faultlines – such as Canada Soccer’s 10-year agreement with Canadian Soccer Business to handle all sponsorship/broadcast deals – began to surface.

That agreement became the focus of the players’ reason to not take the pitch against Panama, their statement said, as it “completely compromised” the team’s ability to leverage its success monetarily.

“Why have Canada Soccer given up autonomy of the greatest opportunity to grow our program in years?'' the statement said.

The impact may stretch beyond just the national men’s team, Price said, given that the team’s meteoric rise has drawn a large number of new fans to the game of soccer. And without another scheduled game in Vancouver besides Thursday’s friendly against Curacao, there’s not an abundance of chances for Canada Soccer to wash away the bad taste in fans’ mouths.

“In order for soccer to really grow in this country, we’re going to have to turn some hockey fans into soccer fans,” he said. “There’s not a lot of ‘agnostics’ left. All the true-blue soccer fans are there already... but the minute they see bad press like this, [new fans] are going to find an excuse not to watch.”

Many of those fans may also be more likely to take interest in Whitecaps FC and other Canadian club soccer entities, some observers argue, and a public-relations black-eye like the cancelled game does not help a sport that’s still trying to reach the next echelon of Canada’s sports hierarchy.

“I think what the risk is that those fans who may have made their first ever plunge into ticket buying for Team Canada, maybe even their first plunge into ticket-buying for a soccer match,” Price said. “They may have been in their cars on their way to the match, already downtown, on a ferry to downtown, what have you. And because of the late nature of the announcement, I think you may have turned off a fair number of those fans... So there was potentially a really bad reaction there.”

Axel Schuster, CEO and sporting director at Whitecaps FC, agreed the situation is not ideal for a growing sport in B.C. to have a last-minute cancellation take place – even if Soccer Canada and the MLS team are completely separate entities. But he noted players strikes at key events are not completely unprecedented, alluding to the French national team holding a one-day strike from practice during the 2010 World Cup (which did not prevent the team from achieving long-term success).

“I think all parties know that this was not the ideal scenario,” Schuster said. “... It puts all the pressure on everyone to do a very, very good job – in the coming weeks, coming months and at the World Cup to build that excitement around the team and maybe calm the people down who may have been upset to get back [to support the team].

“It is very important to explain to people why things happened.”