As ever, the best news for our national soccer program seems to be coming out of the women's side.
Firstly, the national women's team has lifted their boycott of the Cyprus Cup. No full agreement has yet been reached, but the team is satisfied that the Canadian Soccer Association is making good progress. Both parties are obviously willing to compromise for mutual gain, and the women now get a valuable Women's World Cup tune-up. Almost as importantly, they have the chance to add another gong to their already-crowded trophy cabinet (the women have in fact already played their first game of the tournament against Scotland this morning, but as I'm writing this well in advance I have absolutely no idea what the score was. Let's call it Canada 3 - 1 Scotland. It was probably that.)
Second, and much more significantly, we're odds-on favourites to host the 2015 Women's World Cup. I mean, even more odds-on than we were back when Zimbabwe was the only other country bidding. The Zimbabweans have withdrawn from the bidding in advance of FIFA's decision, admitting that their bid simply wasn't up to snuff. I'm sure the costs of their bid ballooned by billions of Zimbabwe dollars since it was announced, but that was probably just inflation. This doesn't mean Canada is the official host, as the CSA was quick to point out: given our history presumably FIFA will just cancel the tournament, or give it to Qatar in the winter. It does mean that nobody is running against us and we are, as it were, the heirs presumptive.
Still, the women are playing again, and in four years' time they might be playing in Canada for the biggest prize of all. That's out-and-out good news, and that's something we're almost getting used to from our national women's teams.
The Cyprus Cup, which the women were threatening to boycott, is by no means a first-class tournament. It's mostly useful as a chance to tune-up against competitive teams and finalize our selection for this summer's World Cup. Canada's in a group with Scotland, Italy, and England: none teams to be taken lightly and all capable of beating Canada on their day, but at the same time teams we should be favoured against. The ladies earlier beat the competitive South Korean team 3-1 in a closed-door friendly and their boycott didn't affect their training: they should be coming into the tournament in top condition.
We've beaten England recently, bumping them off 1-0 in last year's Cyprus Cup. We haven't played Italy since 2006 but that game went our way too: a 3-2 victory in South Korea. Scotland did beat us in a 2008 friendly, but we won our only other previous meeting in 2002. Our all-time record against Italy is two wins, three losses, and one draw with no loss more recent than 1999. Against England, we're three wins and two losses all-time. This is our group for the taking, but all three teams can give us a hell of a time if we let them.
The Cyprus Cup is a somewhat weird format: there are three groups. The first two contain the strongest teams, and the winners of each group play for the championship. The third group contains second-rate women's teams playing against the losers of the first two groups for places seven through twelve. It's more about the effort than the results for this tournament, even if we are the defending champions and the most successful nation in its short history. A victory would go a long way to still those Canadian fans nervous about the women's team following their widely-publicized boycott, and it might help us get in the headlines for a positive reason once again.
The Women's World Cup would be much bigger news, if it comes off. It might actually be a net negative to the team in a weird way, as they wouldn't need to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and the CONCACAF championship represents some of the best competition this team gets. But it's obviously a huge plus for soccer in this country. Those who scoff and say Canada won't support the women's game should remember the last time we hosted a major youth international tournament and the thousands of Canadians (including your author) who were turned onto Canadian soccer by the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship. Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, and Moncton have all expressed some degree of interest in hosting a group; Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, and either Ottawa or Moncton would probably be the "big four" of any winning bid (Toronto is sitting out due to their focus on the 2015 Pan-American Games).
Each of these cities have, or will have, a stadium capable of hosting tens of thousands of die-hard Canadian soccer fans. Most also boast natural grass already in place, with Vancouver and Edmonton the obvious exceptions. Canada could easily host one group in each city with first-class entertainment and amenities, put the quarter- and semi-finals in first-class stadia, and by hosting the final in Edmonton with temporary grass attract over 60,000 fans to watch the game at its best. Canada's current senior national team is mostly young, and by 2015 they could be odds-on favourites for the title.
Say what you will about women's soccer, but to watch a Canadian team win one of the game's highest honours on home soil would be the biggest boost Canadian soccer has ever experienced. If the Canadian women's team just made a good account of themselves, they'd still turn countless Canadians onto the game and make some of the Eurosnobs realize that we can play in this country too. I'm not saying anything that's news to any of my readers. I'm just saying... this is actually happening. One step at a time, Canada really seems to be on the road to soccer success.