Lloyd Barker and Jason deVos, admirable sports analysts both, have recently opined their lamentations on the woeful state of soccer in Canada in both the Montréal Gazette and TSN. They claim that Men's soccer is in shambles in this country, from the ground up, and that our professional teams aren't signing enough Canadians, among other ills. They fail, however, to mention that Canada consistently ranks among the elite in world soccer, in tournament after tournament. It's just not our men's team that is winning: It's our women. They've been a powerhouse now for the last decade, and they show no signs of slowing down.
You may or may not know about our Women's National Soccer Team, as they get nearly no media coverage, despite being one of the best women's soccer teams in the world. They are presently ranked 8th overall by FIFA, behind the usual suspects of Germany, France, the US, Sweden and a few others. We're ahead of international titans Australia, and we're set to overtake Brazil if the streak continues. While many wonder if the Men's Soccer team will beat Dominica, a country with the population of Sarnia, Ontario, our Women consistently beat teams that our men could only dream of competing against. In 2015 alone, our women have beaten Scotland, South Korea and Italy, all on European soil without the benefit of a home stadium or the 12th man (or woman). They have lost a single match, to England, for a 75% win ratio. Our men famously went nearly 20 games without a win.
So, with these women being literally the incarnation of soccer prowess that Canadian fans want, why aren't we going to see them play? Well, many players on this team got their start with the Ottawa Fury (féminin), the precursor to the Men's club in the NASL that just signed Canadian International Julian De Guzman. The Ottawa Fury Women's side, which consistently placed in the top two or three (Champions in 2012) of the W-League, was disbanded in 2014. The Montréal Xtreme met a similar fate after several impressive seasons. Both of these teams had consistently turned out high calibre players that play on the Women's National Team, and brought their clubs to success. Most of Canada's National Team, including keeper Karina LeBlanc and Marie-Ève Nault have come through these disbanded clubs. Their members may live to play another day, but the clubs that nourished them, and their respective academies have gone the way of the dodo. Many are now playing in the United States or Europe. That's not good for our team, the sport or its future in Canada.
As of right now, only two pro clubs exist in the Ottawa-Québec strip; Les Cometes de Laval, and C.S. Amiral de Québec. Both are redefining the term "Elite" with an impressive run of victories, titles and play-off runs. If we want to see winning soccer, we don't need to look far. It's time we supported our girls in soccer as much as the boys. It's the only way our children will see that they have a future in this sport outside of moving to Europe or Latin America.
If Canada is to evolve as a soccer country, we'll need heroes for our children to look up to. Our young boys and girls playing hockey idolize Sidney Crosby and Hayley Wickenheiser. But in soccer, we consistently denigrate women. The dinosaur currently heading FIFA, Sepp Blatter, suggested that in order to boost popularity of women's soccer, they should play in skimpy uniforms. This is blatantly sexist, and above all else, stupid. Soccer is the most played sport in the world, Canada included, and if we consistently tell half the players that they will never be as good as the boys, what is the incentive for them to play and compete? What sort of sporting environment are we fostering for girls, or boys, if competition is no longer about skill and discipline, but gender? It's unhealthy for the girls playing, and creates a divisive and even complacent atmosphere for the boys. But it doesn't have to be that way.
The United States, Sweden and France have figured out women's soccer. It's popular there, and their teams consistently outperform the rest of the world. In the US, women like Mia Hamm and Sydney Leroux have given a face to the game, and inspired not just a generation of young female soccer talent, but have made their names known among global soccer fans as well. They are more than just girl players, they are soccer superstars, and American soccer fans are proud to cheer them on, and even more proud to watch and support them. France, which has its own Women's League (Division 1 féminin), with teams operated by Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs, attracts the support of club supporters in one of the biggest and best leagues in the world. Sweden has followed the French model, and many large top flight men's clubs also operate women's teams as well. Both France and the US are favourites at this years Women's World Cup, and Sweden isn't far behind. If you don't believe that their soccer is as fast paced, physical and aggressive as ours, watch a video on their website. Their women's soccer also gets excellent media coverage - especially in France where the larger clubs command huge followings of club supporters. Check out the video below where Olympique Lyonnais demolish LDB Malmo of Sweden 5-0. Both those clubs are owned by the same group that own their male counterparts. They play in the same stadium, benefit from the same social media presence and same season ticket holders. They are profitable, powerful and well known.
So, why can't we do that? Why can't young boys and girls in Canada, whether in Saguenay or Saskatoon, dream of one day scoring a game winning goal like Christine Sinclair, instead of Messi? They can, if they knew about our players - and they should. Talent is talent, whether its female or male, and Canadian sports fans consistently cheer for talent. Look at the showing our women's and men's hockey team receives at the Olympics if you want proof.
But it runs deeper than that. Why do people in Ottawa turn out in droves for the men's Ottawa Fury, setting an NASL attendance record, yet never even bother to learn that we had a women's team? Is it inherent sexism? Maybe, but I think it's more simple than that. We like spectacle. Would you rather see the Montréal Impact beat Alajuelense 2-0 in Stade Olympique in front of 35,000 screaming fans? Or at a park in Laval that's right beside a highway in front of 600? The reasons women's soccer isn't popular is because we treat it like a sport that isn't meant to be popular. It's a perpetual also-ran. Even though it's better than a lot of top flight men's soccer, even in the MLS (seriously, have you seen a match featuring the Colorado Rapids or the Chicago Fire), it's consistently referred to as slower and less physical than men's soccer by commentators who couldn't tell a shot from a cross, when it might just be the soccer we've been looking for all along. The only way we're going to change that mentality and in the process grow the sport in Canada, is by going and seeing for ourselves - because our media does not care about women's soccer, or soccer in general really.
This, of course, brings me back to the Comètes de Laval and C.S. Arsenal de Québec - our two pro teams in the W-League of the USL. They play on turf, they play in the rain and they even play when nobody is watching. One thing is certain though, they always play to win - and they win a lot. If the Impact gave half as much as these girls do, they'd be a sure bet to win the MLS Cup. Laval has placed in the top 3 every year since 2010, and Québec City's record is right behind. But like their defunt Ottawa and Montréal sisters before them, they are still a business. They need fan support to stay afloat. They will continue to languish below the radar unless we get them the same coverage as the PLSQ, or our minor professional teams. Letting them play in our stadiums would be a start. Their records deserve it. Their players deserve it even more.
But there is a way we can change it, and change it soon. This year, the Women's World Cup is coming to Canada. The biggest matches will be held right here in Ottawa and Montréal. If we show our women's soccer team, and by extension, the businesses that own stadiums and media outlets across this vast country, that we are a serious soccer nation then we need to come out in force to support les rouges. Even if you buy tickets to see another team, like the French or the Koreans, simply by showing that we care about women's soccer, we're sending a message that we're a contender nation with a serious soccer pedigree. Most importantly, we'll be telling our daughters along with our sons, that as long as your work hard and play even harder, that the world cup is not out of anyone's reach.
I already have my tickets to two matches at TD Place in Ottawa. If we qualify for the knockout stage in Montréal, I'll be there too. Hopefully, I'll see you all there. Allez les rouges!