Great Success - Minor Impact: Women’s Soccer in Canada

US Women's National Team vs Canada (2007)
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US Women's National Team vs Canada (2007)

So they’ll take the field after all. The strike was cancelled. Team captain Christine Sinclair and her 24 teammates will slip on the tricot with the red maple leaf in June and prove to soccer fans all over the world, that good soccer can also be found in the land of eternal winter. For the Canadian women the opening match of the World Cup against Germany is—for the time being—the highlight of an unprecedented boom in women’s soccer.

Just a few weeks ago it was quite doubtful, that Sinclair & Co. would ever step on the turf of the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Because of quarrels with the national federation, the soccer players had threatened to boycott all national games and for quite some time it was not clear, whether the team would even line up for the World Cup. Only after tenacious negotiations, did the Canadian women abandon their threat. They had been at the end of their tethers, reported the record-holding national player Sinclair. "All we really want is that the younger players will have it better one day than we do."

What had happened? In actual fact, the female Canadian soccer players enjoy more success than ever. Under the direction of their Italian trainer Carolina Morace, the Canadian team won one game after the next, and qualified as the best team in their group for the World cup in Germany. In the world ranking they have climbed up to rank nine. In comparison: The Canadian men have been skulking around rank 80.

Also at the base, women’s soccer has become more and more popular. As per the latest available data from the Canadian federation, meanwhile almost 380,000 women and girls have registered in the clubs between Halifax and Vancouver—as many as never before. That is the third-highest number in women’s soccer worldwide. Back in 1996, a mere 31 percent of Canadian "soccer players" on the turf were women. Now they represent more than 43 percent.

However, the success of the national team and the boom in popular sports, do not automatically translate into more influence. In the executive committee of the federation, the highest decision-making body in Canadian soccer, there is not one single woman so far—but seven men. All but two women made it into the expanded governing body—with ten men. A recently decided reform of the federation is to mitigate the imbalance at least slightly in the future.

Star trainer Carolina Morace apparently didn’t want to wait so long. According to Canadian press reports she had requested more decision-making power over her women’s team from the federation. The clash was so violent, that Morace was ready to quit her trainer job right after the World Cup. For solidarity reasons, Sinclair along with the entire team threatened with a walkout a few months before the World Cup.

The female Canadian players also feel treated way below their value. They feel disadvantaged compared to their male colleagues as far as compensation is concerned, but also in terms of recognition. In the meantime they have retained a lawyer to force more equality. "We want an agreement with the federation offering us more security and independence“, reported Christine Sinclair while at the World Cup training camp in Italy in March.

For instance, the women players of the Canadian National team assert, that they only receive bonuses for some games. In addition they get a modest 1500 Dollars from the Athlete Assistance Program. In contrast, their male colleagues reportedly receive separate payments for national games and have long-term contracts which give them financial security. The exact conditions of the contracts are, however, confidential. So far, the federation has not made them public.

The times of ad-hoc treatment had to end, requested Sinclair—also in the name of her 24 teammates. The midfielder Carmelina Moscato commented: “Many of us have passed on lucrative offers from foreign clubs to be able to play for the national team." Now it was time to be treated just as well as the male colleagues. This was quite simply a question of respect.

But just as in many other western countries, Canada also has an issue with its mind-set. "Soccer still has a very masculine flair here," reports Karin Lofstrom from the "Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity". Not only most of the functionaries, but also most of the trainers are still men. Lofstrom hopes that the World Cup on the home turf will contribute to more women getting leading positions. In the year 2015 Canada will be the next host of the Women’s Soccer World Cup.

Lofstrom’s organization which is supported by the Canadian government has been active to improve the visibility of women in sports for 30 years already. The organization provides information services, organizes leadership workshops for women, grants scholarships for sportswomen and supports talented female athletes from disadvantaged families. Even though on an international level, Canada is generally considered to be exemplary in terms of societal equality and the participation of women—in the field of sports, the reality is often not as rosy.

"While most athletes are evaluated as per their performance, looks have always played an important role with women," says Lofstrom. Just take a look at North American newsstands. Periodically, you will find glossy magazines with high circulations showing athletes preferably in tiny bikinis. The budgets of the large sports marketing agencies are also mainly aligned to the interests of the male consumer, the same applies for the media.

Compounding the issue, soccer generally stands in the shadow of the great professional sports types such as ice-hockey, football or baseball. The Canadian media often also report more about European soccer than about the soccer-players in their own country. Women are not able to break this trend, despite their many successes. For instance, there are more and more women teams at colleges and universities. But a professional league has not yet been established in Canada, as opposed to men.

Liz Herbert is working hard to change this. The 35 year old herself, has played as midfielder in the Canadian National team for four years. Today she is project manager at “InMotion Network”, an organization from Edmonton, which encourages women and girls to develop enthusiasm for classic male dominated sports types such as soccer and ice-hockey. For this purpose Herbert visits schools and clubs regularly, last but not least to dispel bias in men.

Herbert is optimistic. She believes that the booming popular sport will in the long-term also be successful on the professional level. Even though this was a slow process, she says. The progress in schools and clubs can no longer be denied. In the nineties for example, some parents still hesitated to send their daughters to soccer at all. In the meantime this is only rarely the case in Canada.

"More and more parents understand how useful team sports such as soccer can be for the success and upward mobility of their children," she says. "And that is particularly true for women." Herbert names skills such as assertiveness and team spirit which help woman get ahead later on in their professional careers.

Saying this, Herbert is thinking about immigrant families in particular. Canada accepts more than 250,000 immigrants annually and has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world. For many newcomers sports—also soccer—is a tool for integration. With its programs, "In Motion" also proactively targets Muslim communities to encourage girls to engage in sports.

And if nothing else, Herbert is able to point to the National Women’s team: Several of the top athletes come from immigrant families or come from big cities such as Toronto which are known for their ethnic diversity. In the Italian or South American communities in Toronto for example, soccer traditionally plays a great role. Some of the Canadian national players were also born abroad: in Turkey, in Jamaica, or Trinidad for example. Their success in sports is a great incentive for a new generation of soccer-girls.

"In the meantime, successful players such as Christine Sinclair—irrespective of their origin and religion—have become role models for many young girls," says Herbert. This just might be the reason, why Sinclair and her national team have cancelled their strike after all. Although so far, not nearly enough of the disputed issues have been resolved. And Canada’s soccer women are still not within reach of true equality.



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