Interview: Football Canada's Shannon Donovan on IFAF split

Canada won silver at the 2011 IFAF senior world championships (pictured), but didn't send a team to this year's tournament. Despite a split in the IFAF, Football Canada plans to stick with the existing organization. (Football Canada.)

What if I told you that around half of the members of an international sports federation with Olympic aspirations appear to have broken away before the championship game, held their own congress and elections, seized control of the organization's Twitter account, prompted the remaining federation members to declare that the Twitter account was unofficial and that their own official elections stood, and done all that with almost no one noticing? What if I told you that the reigning silver medalists, from a country with the second-ranked pro football league in the world and the most pro football players outside the U.S., didn't send a team to the senior world championships, partly because those championships were moved across the ocean to their neighbouring country at the last minute, and almost no one noticed that either? All of the above is true, and it's just part of the weirdness surrounding the International Federation of American Football (IFAF)'s latest senior world championship, which Rodger Sherman outlined in this excellent SB Nation piece that was published Thursday. For the details of what went down, and an exclusive interview with Football Canada executive director Shannon Donovan about what this means for Canada and international football, read on.

The short version of what happened: the senior world championships are held every four years, with Canada winning silver in the latest edition in Austria in 2011. The 2015 edition was initially scheduled for Stockholm, Sweden, but was controversially cancelled in December 2014 amidst allegations of impropriety against then-IFAF president Tommy Wiking, who took a leave of absence from the organization and from the Swedish football federation that week, citing health reasons. The tournament was officially moved to Canton, Ohio two months later, and that decision actually made it harder for Canada to field a team. Football Canada announced in April they weren't sending a squad, one of five countries to drop out after the location change, leaving the tournament with a field of just seven teams.

During the tournament this month (where the U.S. eventually took gold, under former Montreal Alouettes head coach Dan Hawkins, no less, while Japan won silver and Mexico earned bronze), the annual IFAF world conference was held, with 35 countries expected to attend. IFAF managing director Andy Fuller wrote that before that conference officially opened, some countries involved expressed concern that Wiking didn't have a seat at the head table. The IFAF board said they'd accepted Wiking's resignation earlier in the year. Following that, many countries' representatives left and held their own elections, using the @IFAFOfficial Twitter account to publicize the results, claiming 22 participating members, and saying that Wiking was president and that the 2016 congress would be held in France. Meanwhile, the 19 members who stuck with the official IFAF conference (including Canada) unanimously voted for Finland's Roope Noronen as president for one year, with an election for a four-year term to follow at the 2016 IFAF congress, which they haven't yet set a date and location for. They reject all IFAF claims not on the official IFAF.org website and do not recognize the breakaway group's vote for Wiking.

On Friday, I spoke to Donovan about the IFAF drama and Canada's part in it. She said Football Canada firmly supports the IFAF, was one of 19 countries to stay in the official congress, and believes the organization (which still includes the majority of powerful and established football countries, such as the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Finland, Sweden and more) represents the best way forward to boost the game globally.

"We stayed with where the growth of the sport is going to take place," she said. "The countries that did stay are very focused on growth, and the future, and growing the sport."

Plenty of renowned countries appear to have left, though. France, which finished fourth at this year's tournament, seems to be in the breakaway group, as are other European countries like Germany, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. Donovan said there had been a few rumblings of discontent ahead of the congress, but so many countries walking out and forming their own group took everyone by surprise.

"I don't think anyone expected it," she said. "There were some countries that had come into it with a plan, but that definitely didn't include Football Canada."

Donovan wasn't at the meeting herself; Canada was represented during the tournament by Football Canada president Richard MacLean and junior national team head coach Warren Craney (also the head coach of the York Lions). She said there was never any question of Canada joining the splinter group, though, especially considering the crucial countries that stuck around in the main organization.

"Our big competition in international events is the U.S., Mexico, Japan, and some of the European countries," she said. "I think we have some very strong countries that can push football forward."

She said Football Canada has a solid relationship with the IFAF (MacLean is the chair of the Pan-America region for the organization), and they'll look to continue that going forward.

"I think the relationship is good," Donovan said. "We support the things that help us, and the things that help the game grow. ...For us, our programs, our development, we're still in a good spot."

The splinter group could have an effect on what happens with international football going forward, though. The IFAF applied in June to have football as an Olympic sport in 2020, and while that's probably optimistic, it could happen down the road. Having it unclear which federation and which president runs the sport won't help that bid, especially as Wiking was a key figure in meetings with the IOC. Donovan said the IFAF still has IOC connections even after Wiking's departure, though, and she's optimistic football could be in the Olympics as early as 2024, especially if that event winds up being held in North America.

"Tommy was the main contact with the IOC, but other people were in those meetings too," she said. "If North America is a part of that, even as a demonstration sport, it's close. ...If it is being held in North America, it's closer than it's ever been."

To get there, though, football will likely need a unified governing body and further participation around the world, and this split could make that difficult. Donovan said she's optimistic the divide won't last long, though.

"I do believe it will pass," she said. "I hope it is going to pass."

Also see my interview with Donovan about why Canada didn't have a team at these senior championships, and what the future of the senior program is.

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