Canada Soccer leadership failed its men's team in Iran debacle

·4 min read
Canada Soccer's failure to anticipate a problem in hosting the Iranian team doesn't bode well for an organization that will be involved in co-hosting the 2026 World Cup. (Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images - image credit)
Canada Soccer's failure to anticipate a problem in hosting the Iranian team doesn't bode well for an organization that will be involved in co-hosting the 2026 World Cup. (Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images - image credit)

In March, Canada's men qualified for their first World Cup in 36 years. It took Canada Soccer about six weeks to remind everyone why it took so long.

When it was announced in May that Canada would host an exhibition against Iran in Vancouver on June 5, the families of the victims of Flight PS752 were among the first to call for the game's cancellation. The Ukraine Airlines plane was shot down by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2020, killing 176 people, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents.

While pressure mounted, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated the painfully obvious: "I think it wasn't a very good idea to invite the Iranian soccer team to Canada." Canada Soccer admitted that Canadian players had privately been saying the same and, after initially digging in, called off the game last week. Lightly regarded Panama was later named as a last-minute replacement.

From the outside, the scrubbed match seems like a significant unforced error. Did no one within Canada Soccer's leadership ranks see what just about every Canadian could see?

"While we considered the external factors in selecting the optimal opponent in our original decision-making process, we will strive to do better moving forward," the organization said in a statement, its only discussion of the matter.

WATCH / Canada Soccer cancels controversial match against Iran 

But among close observers, there's been a looming dread that the on-field performances of our national teams have started to outstrip the off-field capabilities of the institution. From its shocking handling of former youth coach Bob Birarda's sexual assaults to its inability to meet fan demand for replica jerseys, Canada Soccer keeps falling short in ways large and small.

Now, it's: Hey, let's play host to Iran.

Canada Soccer isn't saying, but I have an idea of what likely happened here: At last, Canada's men have returned to the world stage. Herdman is fanatical in his preparation. He wanted his team to test its mettle against the best competition he could find. There weren't a lot of options.

Iran is ranked 21st in the world, against Canada's 38th. Iran has also qualified for the World Cup, its third in a row. In exchange for a reported $400,000, the Iranians even agreed to come to Vancouver, easing the travel burden on a Canadian team that also has to play in Curacao and Honduras in the next week. Iran made the best soccer sense.

Fernando Llano/The Associated Press
Fernando Llano/The Associated Press

Going to end up in the dirt

Unfortunately, no one in Canada Soccer wondered how sensible it would seem to the families whose loved ones were shot out of the night sky over Tehran only two years ago.

The hard truth is, Canada Soccer's mostly positive experience in the women's game hasn't really prepared it for what's to come in the men's. The truly global attention, the scope and nature of the competition, the money and so, too, the corruption: Men's soccer, almost inevitably, means that you're going to end up in the dirt.

Look no further than this year's host: Qatar, across the Persian Gulf from Iran. (The women will play next year in Australia and New Zealand.) FIFA's choice demanded a cartoonish commitment to scandal; thousands of migrant labourers have died there in the last 10 years, including dozens building eight new stadiums for the event.

We will still send our men to Qatar come November. They will still be joined by 31 other countries, including Iran, and millions of their supporters. Someone will still raise that iconic gold trophy on ground that has been literally soaked with blood.

WATCH / Canada Soccer's lack of leadership exposed: 

Canada Soccer is now in a space that will offer so many serious moral dilemmas, we should probably avoid manufacturing our own. The Iran debacle has cost the Canadian men valuable playing experience against a top-flight opponent and some significant face. That makes it big enough to warrant overdue changes in how we govern soccer in this country. It's time for all of us to start paying a little more attention.

You don't make your first Men's World Cup in 36 years and get to start dictating terms. But how we navigate the rest of this World Cup year matters, especially because Canada, along with the United States and Mexico, will co-host the next edition in 2026.

Qatar isn't the end of a journey. It's the start of one.

And before any expedition, the first and most important choice is who you choose to lead you.

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