Canada is a country not immediately thought of when the topic is football. In fact, it is called soccer there, as it is in the United States. Even news from the North American league, Major League Soccer, focuses on the United States, seemingly ignoring the fact that three clubs in that league are based in Canada. The country’s place in the world of football seems schizophrenic, with its women being strong competitors globally while its men are mediocre at best.

Canada’s women’s national team is currently ranked 8th in the FIFA world rankings, just behind Brazil but ahead of traditional football nations such as the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. They were bronze medalists at the 2012 Olympics and gold medalists at the 2011 Pan-American Games. Fan support for women’s football in Canada has been high for some time. In fact, it might surprise some that the 2002 World U-19 women's final in Edmonton, between Canada and the United States, attracted more than 47,000 spectators. This year, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup takes place in Canada, from June 6 to July 5, and is expected to be a big success from an attendance perspective.

The usual excuses

When looking at the international success of Canada’s women, the men's national team’s performance becomes even more perplexing. There are a number of excuses frequently used by apologetic football administrators. However, deeper examination of these excuses only leads to question their significance. In fact, while they may have some impact, it is doubtful that they are primarily responsible for a men's team that is currently ranked 115th by FIFA.

• “Canada is a big country with scattered population”: the country is indeed large but most of its population is concentrated along its southern border with the United States, while more than 80% of its population is urban.

• “Canada has a cold winter”: it is true, but it also has a network of state-of-the-art indoor facilities in urban areas, so that training of athletes can continue.

• “Canada has a hockey culture”: true, but due to immigration and growing popularity among the young, football has become its most popular sport in terms of participation.

Fan support for football in Canada

It may seem strange but Canada loves the game of football. While the men’s team languishes in the rankings, among small islands, war-torn and impoverished nations, Canadian fans were ranked 11th among those who attended the World Cup in Brazil and at home. The World Cup games from Brazil had some of the highest television ratings for sporting events in the country, while English Premier League games usually get impressive TV ratings.

Canadian fans also attend Major League Soccer (MLS) games in large numbers. Toronto FC has some of the highest attendance levels in MLS, even without having much success since its entry into the league. The other two Canadian MLS clubs have also, at times, distinguished themselves for their strong support. Such support is all the more impressive because the league itself is better known for its marketing efforts, rather than for the quality of play.

When Canadian clubs experience success internationally, their fans show up in numbers that can compare to larger European clubs. In a recent example, Montreal Impact sold a record 61,004 seats for its CONCACAF club final leg in Montreal, on April 29, against Mexican side Club América.

So where are the Canadian stars?

A great source of frustration for Canadian fans is that the men’s national team has not had much success internationally since its first appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 1986. Equally frustrating is that Canadian players today have difficulty reaching even the level required to play regularly in MLS.

It seems obvious that there is a need to re-examine youth development to improve the male players’ quality. While many fans expect professional clubs operating in North America to replicate the world famous youth development clubs in Europe and South America, there does not seem to be much incentive for these clubs to do so. The problem appears to begin at the grassroots level, far beyond the interest of professional clubs.

Young players development in Canada

In Europe and South America, professional club involvement in the early training of children is limited to those that have shown potential very early in life: the professional side is normally kept as a clearly separate enterprise. Around the world, most children play close to home until identified by a club that sees a future for them, as well as potential financial gain from the time and money that will be invested for their development.

Football has grown rapidly in Canada and currently ranks 10th in the world in terms of registered players, according to FIFA’s Big Count. In Canada, children tend to get their first playing experiences in local community clubs. Such clubs, in bigger cities, have become very large in terms of number of children registered. It is not uncommon to have a club with more than 5,000 registered players, while a few have grown to have even over 10,000. At the same time, there are smaller clubs in rural areas that tend to limit themselves to just organizing recreational games for their registered players. There is very little collaboration between these clubs.

These community clubs are strictly amateur and operate on a concept where parents pay a registration fee, in exchange for their children having an opportunity to play. Children are organized into teams according to age and often gender. Coaches are volunteers and usually picked up from the parents of children playing in the club. Competitive leagues are organized among clubs where teams are entered by the clubs wishing to participate. Consequently, two separate streams have developed. One stream is purely recreational and limits competitiveness. The other is competitive and demands significant parental involvement in terms of time and cost.

Lessons from elsewhere

Canadians and probably North Americans often tend to ignore the overall structure of the youth system because it requires collaboration among all parts involved. Nevertheless, looking at two football powers, Brazil and the Netherlands, makes the need for a total restructuring of the youth system in Canada more obvious. Some countries elsewhere may also benefit from avoiding the mistakes made in Canada.

Lessons from Brazil

• It's not about money: it is worth noting that the budget Santos FC spends on its world class youth system is not that different from the Oakville Soccer Club, Canada’s largest youth club with more than 12,000 registered players. Another top level club, Coritiba Foot Ball Club, spends about the same money on its youth system as Burlington youth soccer club makes in revenue (a youth club with about 6,000 registered players). While it is recognized that Santos FC and Coritiba are primarily concerned with developing top quality players, Canadian clubs do have the numbers and the resources to aim at the same goal.

• It’s not the lack of training facilities: training facilities in Canada are far superior to the facilities that are available to most competitive youth players in Brazil. Only the largest clubs in Brazil are able to match the facilities of larger youth clubs in Canada.

Lessons from the Netherlands

• Don’t leave player development only to professionals: the Dutch, being very pragmatic, have understood that professional clubs can’t be counted on to be inclusive for all the youngsters wanting to play football and be financially responsible at the same time. The national association (KNVB) has devised an integrated youth system that allows everyone that wants to play to do so. It does not distinguish between amateur and professional clubs under the age of 14.

• Football is a team game played by individuals: in the Netherlands, young players are not separated into recreational and competitive players nor are girls and boys playing separately. Teams are arranged according to the ability and the size of the players. The best play with the best against the best while the others find their natural level of competition. As players develop, they move up or down to match the ability of their teammates and their opponents. Competition is among players and coaches are expected to be concerned only with the improvement of individual players.

• Young player development happens better locally: for a North American, it might be shocking to discover that the largest amateur club in the Netherlands, Quick ‘20, has fewer than 2,000 registered players, while Canada’s largest amateur club is Oakville Soccer Club (near Toronto), with more than 12,000 registered players. The fact that Dutch superstar Arjen Robben played until the age of 12 in his home amateur club might shock North Americans even more. There are others. By having the ability to develop close to home, it is clear that the responsibility to do what is needed to improve is more likely to stay within the young player rather than transfer to their parents.

Useful links

Canadian men's football: the usual excuses:
The strategy of leaving no one behind:
Player development in Canada vs The Netherlands: