VANCOUVER — Canada's men's soccer team refused to play a scheduled World Cup warmup match on Sunday against Panama amid a contract dispute between the players and the sport's national governing body.
Canada Soccer confirmed the match, scheduled for B.C. Place in Vancouver, was cancelled less than two hours before kickoff. Hundreds of disappointed fans dressed in red and white uniforms lingered outside the stadium after the news broke.
The Canadian players issued a statement Sunday afternoon saying they decided not to play the game because the negotiations over a new deal had been "unnecessarily prolonged."
"It's time we take a stand for the future of soccer in Canada," the statement said, noting that the talks began in March.
The players said they want more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization's leadership, and World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a "comprehensive friends and family package" for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
"We want to work together with our organization, but the relationship has been strained for years," the statement said. "And now, Canada Soccer has disrespected our team and jeopardized our efforts to raise the standards and effectively advance the game in Canada."
The proposal the players have put forward is not financially viable, said Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis.
"My job as president is a responsibility to the fiduciary and stable health of this organization, not just for the last 120 years that we've been alive, but for the next 100 years we're going to be alive," he said at a Sunday afternoon press conference. "And I can't accept that offer that will put our organization in a financial position that is untenable."
Players also want a review of the deal Canada Soccer signed with Canadian Soccer Business in 2019. The 10-year agreement sees Canadian Soccer Business represent both the men's and women's national teams in all sponsorship and broadcast deals.
The players' statement said the deal "completely compromised (Canada Soccer's) ability to leverage the on-field success of our senior national teams."
“We need the terms of this agreement to be disclosed and corrected," it said. "We want to know who signed this deal that has handcuffed our association. Why have Canada Soccer given up autonomy of the greatest opportunity to grow our program in years?”
Bontis defended the agreement, saying Canada Soccer Business has been "pivotal" to building the sport in Canada.
Canada Soccer Business chair Scott Mitchell issued a statement Sunday night saying he "fully supports" the call for more transparency from Canada Soccer.
"We are proud of our agreement with Canada Soccer and what it means to the Canadian soccer ecosystem," he said. "We are prepared to be fully transparent about our agreement which has included an unprecedented amount of revenue to Canada Soccer in the past 18 months in the forms of sponsorship and international media dollars."
The players are also asking for an equitable compensation structure for the men's and women's teams, and the development of a women's domestic league.
The Canadian women's team said in a statement Sunday that it is happy to hear about the men's team's request, but it noted that the women's team does not view equal FIFA percentages for the two teams as equal pay.
"The women's national team will not accept an agreement that does not offer equal pay," the statement said.
The women's team also said it sees the proposal Canada Soccer tabled for both teams on Friday as a "positive step" toward pay equity between the men's and women's teams, "and one that provides a basis for futher negotiations."
The U.S. Soccer Federation recently agreed to collective bargaining agreements that equalized compensation for the men's and women's teams for the first time.
Canada's men's team cancelled a pair of training sessions scheduled for Friday and Saturday due to the contract dispute.
With the World Cup set to begin in November, the Canadians are missing out on valuable time together on the field, Bontis said.
"I'm sorry that the game didn't occur today, not just for the fans. But I'm sorry for the technical staff, the coaching staff," he said. "(Head coach) John Herdman, at the beginning of this window, had 16 training sessions with the national team between now and Qatar. That number went to 14 today.
"We cannot afford to lose these opportunities to have our men display the performance that I know they're capable of when they go to Qatar."
The men's team has not played on home soil since it beat Jamaica 4-0 in Toronto on March 27 and clinched a spot in the World Cup. It's been even longer since the squad played in Vancouver, with its last appearance coming in March 2019, when Canada beat French Guiana 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying.
Canada, ranked 38th in the world, is scheduled to kick off CONCACAF Nations League play against No. 79 Curaçao in Vancouver on June 9.
"We want to apologize to our fans," the players said in their statement. "Playing at home with your support is everything to us. We hope Canada Soccer will take decisive steps to work with our team so we can be back on the field for our match (in Vancouver) on June 9."
Canada Soccer could face fines if the men's team withdraws from the Nations League competition.
It's a scenario the organization is still looking to avoid, Bontis said.
"If we cannot arrive at a deal, and the players refuse to play the Curaçao match, that will be a CONCACAF issue to address under the auspices of FIFA," he said. "But our intention has always been to continue to come up with a solution as soon as possible."
It's not the first time Canada Soccer has cancelled a game scheduled for the current international window. Canada was initially set to host Iran in a friendly at B.C. Place on Sunday, but the match drew heavy criticism, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying it "wasn't a very good idea" to invite the Iranian team to play.
An Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8, 2020 shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing 176 people, including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents.
More than 40,000 tickets for the Canada-Iran game were sold before it was cancelled by Canada Soccer on May 26. Panama was named as the replacement opponent on May 31.
Canada has not played in a World Cup since 1986. It's set to open this year's tournament on Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 24 Morocco on Dec. 1.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2022.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press