On November 23, Canada’s men will kick off against Belgium in our first World Cup appearance since 1986.
“I think their chances are pretty good,” predicts Redeemer University soccer coach Meaghan Rudd. “They have good leadership, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with that.”
Rudd is being kind. The men’s chances of vying for a top spot are a long shot compared to Canada’s women’s soccer team. Under the leadership of Christine Sinclair, Canada’s women won Olympic gold last year in Tokyo and are favourites to win the World Cup in 2023. Sinclair even holds the world record for most international goals scored by either men or women – an unbelievable 190 goals, 73 more than the highest scoring man, Christiano Ronaldo.
While the Canadian women are likely to go further than the Canadian men at their respective World Cups, the men will make more money. Even if they lose all of their games, the men will earn at least 10 million USD in FIFA prize money. The women need to win their whole tournament to get close to that figure. During the last women’s World Cup in 2019, the winning team received four million in prize money. The top men’s team this year will take home 42 million.
These massive pay gaps are top of mind for the men and women sitting around the labour-negotiating table with Canada Soccer over the past year. In fact, Canada’s men refused to play a friendly match against Panama in June, forcing Canada Soccer to take their demands for both the men’s and women’s sides seriously.
“Our core message is that gender inequity needs to come to an end globally,” said Janine Beckie in an interview with TSN. “But obviously we only have control to do that in our association right now.” Beckie plays forward for Canada’s women’s team.
Changes on the horizon
In May, Soccer USA came to the first ever equal pay agreement, under which their men’s and women’s teams will pool their World Cup winnings and divide them equally. These players will still experience unequal pay when it comes to salaries and sponsorships. But in terms of prize money – no more pay gap.
“It changes people’s decision making when the pay is more equal,” says Rudd, when asked if she thought the American deal might have ripple effects here in Canada.
While university players aren’t paid a salary in Canada, Rudd says that over the last six years of her coaching career, her players and alumni are increasingly curious about pathways to professional careers in soccer.
Rudd says there’s a correlation between fair pay and quality soccer. “Women don’t have to worry about getting a second job and working that at the same time,” explains Rudd. “Focus can be on training whether it’s on the field or off the field, mental preparation. Improving deficiencies in your own game. You have time to do that when you’re not having to focus on where your income is coming from.”
If you’ve eaten waffles and frozen yogurt from a food truck in Vancouver, there’s a chance you were served by two of Canada’s finest soccer players. In 2015, during the World Cup that Canada hosted, Selenia Iacchelli and Emily Zurrer had to park their food truck so they could play in the tournament. When I mentioned this example to my husband, a huge soccer fan, he pointed out the fact that it’s not long ago that Canada’s professional men’s players also had to work side gigs.
a soccer nation?
The truth is that Canada is just beginning to take soccer seriously. Alphonso Davies – a 21-year-old from Edmonton – is the first Canadian player to win a Champion’s League title. He plays for Bayern Munich, one of the best teams in the world, but he got his start in a Vancouver Whitecaps youth academy in Edmonton, Alta. These lower tier programs are the key when it comes to cultivating talented athletes. According to Macleans, Davies is now considered the most marketable Canadian athlete in the world, surpassing Connor McDavid.
There are signs that Davies’ success is just the beginning of a new era of sports in Canada. Canada Soccer reports that in 2019, one million Canadians were registered as soccer players, compared to 606,000 registered as hockey players. This momentum at the lowest level means that talented soccer players are more likely to get noticed and pushed towards professional opportunities in their sport.
But will the thousands of girls enrolled in youth soccer in Canada keep playing as they move through elementary and into high school? Probably not. According to a June 2020 report by Canadian Women in Sport, while a similar number of boys and girls start out playing sports, one in three girls will drop out during their teen years while only one in 10 boys decide to quit.
The Canadian government’s two-million-dollar commitment to reducing barriers for Canadian girls and women in sport and public awareness campaigns like #LetGirlsPlay, are important steps in creating more equality in soccer, but we also need a change of heart in the stands.
I asked Rudd what she wishes Canadians (read: hockey-lovers) understood about soccer.
“I think Canadians need to really understand the passion of soccer,” says Rudd referring to the dancing, singing and emotional outpourings common amongst soccer fans all around the world. As the world’s most global sport, Rudd says, “that common ground definitely crosses cultural and language boundaries.”
“It really is a team sport like no other, because you have 10 players on the field at the same time, 11 with the goalie. You really have to work together for a common goal,” adds Rudd.
Soccer brings good gifts to Canadian society, including cross-cultural dialogue, community building and a special kind of teamwork. Why limit those benefits to only half of the population? For soccer to flourish on Canadian soil, equal access for girls and fair compensation for professional women will make all the difference.
Rudd says that our church cultures might also learn something from embracing the so-called beautiful game’s unique angle on collaboration. “Soccer can teach us a lot about God and his will for our lives,” says Rudd. “There’s a lot to do with perseverance. Winning and losing games and persevering and working together. It really does show God’s love for us that he gives us passion for sport and creativity to use on the field to work together for a common goal.”
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