Until a month ago, all seemed well for Canada Soccer.
The women’s national team are the reigning Olympic champions, the men’s team had landed their first World Cup appearance since 1986 and the country was preparing to co-host the men’s World Cup in 2026.
Moments like those of Sam Adekugbe snowdrift celebration in Edmonton added excitement among fans across the country amid a winning streak for the men’s team.
How quickly the momentum stalled – and with it, a golden financial opportunity.
First, Canada Soccer hosted a friendly match with Iran, which was eventually canceled after widespread opposition. Sunday’s substitute game against Panama was also halted just hours before kick-off after the Canadian players refused to take the field due to salary concerns.
Thursday’s next match against Curaçao is now uncertain.
“I would consider this a crisis”
Aside from the Canadian clubs that recently made the NHL playoffs, the men’s national soccer team was arguably the hottest ticket in the country due to its recent dominance and a roster of entertaining young players. that reflect the diversity of the nation.
The financial outlook was also unprecedented. Not only is the opportunity lost, but there will be financial consequences for the national sports body for the canceled matches.
“The demand was huge and when they have a time like this, they have to strike. They have to strike when it’s hot. They need funding,” said David Chong, managing director of MKTG Canada, an agency sports marketing.
“Even before this problem with the [Iran] friendly being cancelled, I think Canada Soccer was struggling to keep up with the demand for simple things like merchandise,” he said.
MKTG represents Scotiabank and helped negotiate a sponsorship deal with CONCACAF, the sporting body that hosted the recent World Cup qualifying tournament where Canada finished top of the standings. MKTG has also held talks with Canada Soccer on behalf of several clients seeking sponsorship opportunities over the past few years, although Chong said no deal was ultimately reached.
Controversy over the proposed game against Iran could force potential sponsors to rethink their relationship with Canada Soccer, he said, as companies always consider an organisation’s track record, as well as its reliability and his reputation.
“I would consider it a crisis for them,” he said. “There is a long-term impact to consider, which is brand health.”
The performance of the men’s team to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in decades was a feel-good story for the fans, but becomes a heartbreaking story.
“It’s a gong show,” said Sportsnet’s Stephen Brunt on Canada Soccer. “It’s a mess of their own making.”
The families of those who died aboard Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the plane in 2020 – killing all 176 passengers and crew, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents – called the planned exhibition match an insult, especially given lingering concerns about possible IRGC links to the Iranian team.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called it a bad idea for Canada Soccer to invite the Iranian football team, just as did many others who condemned the match.
An international exhibition match is known as a “friendly” – but it’s not just for fun. Matches can be a crucial part of preparing on the pitch for a big tournament like the World Cup.
They are also part of the backbone of how national federations, like Canada Soccer, generate revenue. Typically, a visiting team receives an amount of money to play the match, while the host nation raises funds through ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcast deals.
Canada Soccer had agreed to pay the Iranian Football Federation $400,000 to play an exhibition game in Vancouver, according to the head of the Iranian national team.
The reported sum agreed between Canada and Iran was a reasonable amount, said Pierre Azaria, managing director of MCI Sport, a Switzerland-based agency that organizes international matches and training camps for football clubs and football clubs. national federations.
International matches are often expensive, he said, given the cost of private planes, security and hotels. Usually, a country’s football federation would send at least 55 people to such a game, a contingent of players, coaches and staff.
Top-ranked teams can charge one-time match fees of between $2 million and $3 million, he said.
At the next World Cup, Canada will face African and European teams. It would therefore have been ideal to schedule exhibition matches against countries from these regions before the November tournament.
When Canada were looking for potential opponents, Azaria said he was working to arrange a game against Tunisia.
Azaria said Canada Soccer was unwilling to pay the amount of money offered by Tunisia.
“It didn’t happen in the end,” he said.
Instead, the Tunisian team will earn more than $1 million, Azaria said, to play in Japan.
Tunisia, Iran and Canada have all qualified for the World Cup. Iran is ranked 21st in the world, while Tunisia is 35th, followed by Canada at 38th.
Iran is often seen as a pariah and not a much in demand opponent.
“For a lot of teams, I don’t even offer Iran because politics can be problematic,” Azaria said. “Why should we work with the risk of a scandal?”
A Canada Soccer official said the organization was unable to accommodate an interview request.
Questionable decision making
Canada Soccer is blessed with great success on the pitch with both its men’s and women’s teams, but that’s not what plagues the organization.
“This might be one of the best times in Canadian soccer history from a business perspective,” said Ann Pegoraro, professor of sports management at the University of Guelph.
Following the Iran controversy, Pegoraro said she questions whether Canada Soccer is prepared or professional enough to make the right decisions.
“What we’ve seen here is that the business side of the house is taking a big misstep when the light is arguably shining on it,” she said.
The players did not take the field this weekend against Panama due to a salary dispute. They are calling for more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization’s leadership and World Cup compensation that includes 40% of prize money and a “full friends and family package” for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Players also want a review of the deal Canada Soccer signed with Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) in 2019. 10 year agreement sees CSB representing the men’s and women’s national teams in all sponsorship and broadcast deals.
WATCH | A glimpse of the failure of the Panamanian match:
In a report, CSB President Scott Mitchell said he was “incredibly disappointed” with the cancellation of the Panama match but is backing the players in a call for transparency from Canada Soccer.
But Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis said the players’ proposal was not financially viable.
“I cannot accept this offer which will put our organization in an untenable financial situation,” he said during a press conference on Sunday afternoon, while apologizing to the fans.
On Sunday, Canada Soccer executives said they had moved mountains to coordinate the Panama game on short notice and apologized to the visiting soccer body for the game’s failure.