Russell Teibert beats Sheanon Williams off the dribble. Teibert left the game early to join Canada's U-20 national team, but not everybody cares about their country that much. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
It's become trendy among some Canadian fans to see international duty as an inconvenience rather than an opportunity. And I have no idea what the hell is up with that.
As you read this article, Canada's under-20 national team is playing its most important games of the year. They're in Guatemala taking on the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, and in so doing hoping to qualify for this summer's U-20 World Cup. The U-20 World Cup isn't the biggest tournament in the world but it matters (or, at least, it matters as much as anything in sports matters). If nothing else, it's a chance for Canada's young men to test their mettle against the best in the world at their age group. Qualifying for, and succeeding in, this tournament should be a major objective of Canadian soccer. Unfortunately for us, this year's crop of U-20s has had some mediocre results and seems to need all the help they can get.
The Vancouver Whitecaps organization has four players representing Canada: from the Residency it's defender Derrick Bassi, midfielder/forward Ben Fisk (the youngest player on the team), and forward Coulton Jackson. From the first team it's midfielder/Canadian soccer Jesus Russell Teibert. Toronto FC also contributes three players: defenders Doneil Henry and Ashtone Morgan and midfielder Matt Stinson.
At least, they did contribute three. Last week Toronto head coach Aron Winter called back Henry and Morgan because of "injury concerns". These concerns were so serious that Henry didn't even make the bench against Portland and Morgan saw four minutes of play in garbage time when Toronto was whiling away a dominant 2-0 win. As it transpires, a suspension to Mikael Yourassowsky means that Morgan might come in handy, but I'm going to be controversial and say that Winter didn't have the psychic powers to see that coming. Henry has since returned to the final 20-man roster but it's questionable whether Winter will keep his word and let Henry go.
Now, I'm not here to give my opinion on whether recalling Henry and Morgan was right or wrong because, um, I already did that. Frankly, the point isn't even whether you think Toronto FC was right or wrong taking Morgan and Henry back. It's a subject on which reasonable people can disagree. I freely admit that I wouldn't be so annoyed if it weren't for Toronto's behaviour at the 2009 Gold Cup, the 2010 Honduras friendly, and their general (but not universal) reluctance to give their players up for the national team when not absolutely forced to. You may feel differently, you may think the U-20 World Cup isn't worth worrying about, okay. I've had that argument and I'm not trying to rehash it.
What I found interesting is the way it brought up the old club-vs.-country debate. Fans of Toronto FC will remember a World Cup qualifier in 2008 when Toronto was playing on the same day as Canada: so stripped by players called up to CONCACAF teams, Toronto was forced to play the likes of scout Tim Regan and USL PDL player/general asshole Rick Titus. Given that Canada lost that game (lost it to a team, Honduras, which had taken another Toronto FC star in Amado Guevara), it didn't work out well for anybody. International soccer in Canada seldom does. And that gives way to an odd twist on the old "club vs. country" debate: when the country is Canada, a weird number of supporters from coast to coast care a lot less.
I'm not even referring to the old fact that born-and-raised Canadians cheer for Italy because Italy is good, er, I mean, they had an Italian grandfather who fought with Mussolini. Although that pisses me off. I'm referring to the way some fans of soccer in Canada treat the Canadian team as less worthy than others. We expect our clubs to release players to other national teams without complaint, but Canada? They're just Canada. Come on, they're not going to win anyway.
Since I'm writing about it, you can probably guess what I think of that attitude already: I think it's crazy.
This isn't the first time I've given thought to this. Last summer, for example, Canada's senior men's team played home friendlies for the first time in many years: they took on Peru at BMO Field and Honduras at Stade Saputo. They were both highly credible opponents, and both games were taking place in cities with large, established soccer fanbases. Yet attendance was disappointing. Plenty of excuses were mooted (ticket prices in Toronto were high, for example, but then again Toronto FC fans are used to high ticket prices). Ultimately, whatever the reason, it was a let-down. Yet nobody doubts there were more than enough raucous soccer fans in Toronto and Montreal to fill the stadiums and then some.
This Canadian U-20 team business seems to have many of the same roots. It's not just Toronto fans, I hasten to say: you can hear a few Whitecaps supporters grumbling about sacrificing Teibert to the Canadian U-20 team. Teibert has been a key part of the Whitecaps' fortunes this season; when he was substituted off against Philadelphia you could immediately see the Whitecaps sag. But Teibert, in all probability, will miss our next match against Sporting Kansas City on international duty while the Whitecaps are desperately short of wingers as it is. Not everybody in Vancouver is happy with doing their bit for Queen and country. What I haven't heard is corresponding grumbling about the absence of Omar Salgado: Salgado is playing in the same tournament with the United States U-20s and, now that Eric Hassli is suspended, would come in very handy indeed. But only the CSA is treated as an imposition, while the USSF is just life.
This attitude isn't universal but it's disconcertingly widespread. I mean, at least Canadians who cheer for a non-Canadian national team are being honest: they don't want to cheer for a country that loses pretty much all the time. But whining about clubs trying to support that country, to make it a national program that wins games instead of just getting moral victories, while giving other nations a free pass?
This isn't a majority opinion. But the fact that it's held at all speaks volumes about Canadian soccer's inferiority complex.