Even with so much of the world’s attention focused on the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, there has been a parallel conversation in many organizations around equity, diversity and inclusion. Whether prompted by the death last May of George Floyd, or simply brought into sharper focus by our collective reckoning with systemic racism, representation is something that no organization – including Canada Soccer – can afford to ignore.
That is one reason we have been so focused on diversity in the first 100 days since I was entrusted with the role of President. Our Board of Directors needs to be more reflective of the athletes we represent. It needs to look more like our National Teams. When I was elected, we had two female Directors out of 14, and that, to me, was unacceptable. Slowly, but surely, we will raise the profile of women on the Board and increase our racial diversity.
One of the first things I did as President was to recommend Charmaine Crooks as Vice-President. The five-time Olympian and Olympic silver medallist is the first woman – and the first black woman – to become a senior officer of Canada Soccer’s Board of Directors in its 108-year history. The second thing was to actively work to recruit diverse individuals onto our Board, including our new elected member from Ontario, Paul Martin. It takes more than posting a call for nominees on our website to attract diverse candidates. We need to proactively recruit and create a diversity-focused candidate experience. I learned that some people I spoke to thought they did not qualify, or that the results were predetermined. As President, I want Canada Soccer to attract the best talent available regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, identity, sexual orientation, or experience. It is the mosaic of our organization that will build our brand moving forward.
Another priority is promoting women’s professional soccer. We have to make sure we clearly articulate why we believe the Canadian market is a place where women’s professional soccer will thrive. If you look back to the London 2012 Olympic Games or the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, our Women’s National Team transcended sport. They became a beacon for national pride. That shows the power we have in women’s soccer, and we have to communicate that opportunity to private investors – that women’s professional soccer is a long-term viable investment.
In addition to being your President, I’m also a player, a coach, a soccer parent, and a fan. I’m passionate about the sport and want to see it grow significantly beyond where we were pre-pandemic. We had solid momentum before March 2020, and our recovery will have to happen in phases. First, we must ensure the stability of our organization and that of our members from both a financial and human capital point of view. Second, we must grow back to pre-pandemic registration levels as we collectively focus on our safe Return-to-Play protocols. Third, we must establish a stable foundation now so that we can springboard beyond current levels as we look ahead to the FIFA World Cup 2026™.
As we plan for our sport’s recovery, collaboration is critical. We’re not just large geographically; we’re also very diverse in the type of soccer we play – from futsal, to grassroots, to club teams, to professional leagues, to our Men’s and Women’s National Teams. It’s important for our whole community to open communication channels, accelerate coordination, share best practices, and leverage our expertise so we’re not duplicating our efforts. During my first 100 days, I’ve reached out to our stakeholders – our member organizations, professional clubs, and commercial partners to listen and learn how we can collectively jumpstart our recovery. And as we move into our next strategic planning cycle, we will gather a wide swath of perspectives from across the country through town halls, online surveys and workshops about what our priorities should be for the next few years.
Like all of you, I hope the recovery happens sooner rather than later. I miss watching my children play, and I miss attending live matches. I miss the smell of wet grass and the loud cheers of fans in the stands. I yearn to return to the pitch having played my last old timer’s game the night before the lockdown in Ontario last March.
Our membership has put a lot of faith in me to help move our organization forward during a very difficult time. I will do my best to lead our organization in the execution of our strategic priorities: DEVELOP, GROW and GOVERN. I would like to thank you for your tireless efforts, and I want to acknowledge the selfless volunteerism that is the engine of growth for our sport in Canada. I hope to see you all on the pitch soon.
This past year was one where our world got a lot smaller. We all started spending more time at home. Our immediate family members became our constant companions. Socializing took the form of masked driveway visits with friends and neighbours until the weather got too cold. Our communities became our lifeline.
But absent from all of it was sport: no lacing up your four-year-old’s first pair of cleats and reminding them to keep their eye on the ball. No sitting on the sidelines, cheering on your children’s team and chatting with other soccer parents over coffee. No weekend drives to distant tournaments. Opportunities to watch the heroes of Canada Soccer’s National Teams play on the international stage were few and far between.
Our kids, of course, felt sport’s absence most acutely. So did the coaches, referees, and community volunteers who make grassroots soccer in this country possible. It has been a year of loss: we are grieving the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, the loss of hugs and high-fives – the loss of life as we know it. The pandemic has left a massive hole in the heart of our soccer nation.
It’s one that we at Canada Soccer want to help heal.
While 2020 was probably one of the most difficult years we have ever faced as an organization, there is light visible at the end of this long, dark tunnel. As of the time this is being written (near the end of March 2021) both of our Women’s and Men’s National Teams will have played in 2021, which feels like a strange miracle. Canada Soccer’s collaboration with our member associations, clubs, leagues and public health authorities have allowed us to get back on the pitch safely and from coast to coast to coast the Return-to-Soccer Guidelines will continue to drive that effort. As more and more people receive their first (and second) doses of vaccine, a return to something that resembles normalcy seems possible. We don’t know precisely when that will happen yet, but when it does Canada Soccer will be there to help lead our sport – and our soccer nation – out of the dark and into the light.
The reality is that grassroots sport has been decimated by this pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, which were, of course, necessary to keep all of us safe. But without a robust, thriving grassroots game our sport cannot recover, let alone grow beyond where we were before COVID-19. This is the reason Canada Soccer is part of sporthelps.ca, a partnership of six of the country’s largest National Sport Organizations (NSOs). We are calling on the government to invest $75 million in a Sport Recovery Program to support grassroots, local sport initiatives as they rebuild and recover from the pandemic.
NSOs like Canada Soccer are essential to ensuring a safe return to play and healthy, active living for all Canadians. Anyone who has spent the weekend at their children’s soccer tournament or who has experienced the excitement of Canada’s National Teams in action knows that sport brings communities together. Not only that, but research shows that participating in organized sport improves the physical and mental health of people from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing in competitive leagues or purely for fun and recreation; the health and social benefits of sport are vital for kids and adults alike.
When it is finally safe for all to get back on the pitch, Canada Soccer will be ready to lead our players, parents, referees, coaches and volunteers – and all our members – into the future and help our sport and communities heal as we head towards the FIFA World Cup 2026™.
The Canada Soccer Nation Podcast hosted by Jason deVos, features engaging Canadian soccer guests speaking about a range of grassroots, coach education and club development topics. Check out all available episodes now!