The professional soccer boom in North America is proving a mixed blessing for Canada’s national soccer program, says Eric King, executive director of the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).
On the bright side, says King, the success of the North American Soccer League (NASL) has helped spawn an increased interest in the game, not only from athletes and fans, but from the mass media and large corporate sponsors as well.
On the negative side, he says, the glamour of pro soccer has lured several top players away from Canada’s national program.
In December, Canada’s national youth team finished second behind Mexico in the North, Central and Caribbean Football Confederation (CONCACAF) Youth Tournament in Honduras and qualified for the final round of the FIFA (Fédération International de Football Amateur) World Youth Tournament in Japan next August.
It marked the first time a Canadian team has ever qualified for a major tournament. (Canada’s participation in the 1976 Olympics was due to the fact that it hosted the Games).
One of the main problems Canadian soccer faces is keeping young players committed to the national program.
“Within a month of our youth team coming back from Honduras,” says King, “three of our players had signed professional forms.”
The professional signings don’t make the players ineligible for the World Youth Tournament — it’s an open competition — but they do disqualify them from participation in this year’s Pan American Games and the Olympic qualifying rounds.
“It seems odd to me,” says King, himself a former World Cup player. “To represent your country in international competition is still, to me, the ultimate. And we’d hoped to keep our youth team as a nucleus for the Pan Am and Olympic competitions.”
To qualify for one of the 12 Pan American Games spots in Puerto Rico (down from 16 places in Mexico in 1975), Canada must finish in the top two of the four-member northern zone of CONCACAF, comprised of Mexico, Bermuda, and the USA. The qualifying round will be held in Bermuda in the first week of April.
The road to the 1980 Olympic tournament will be even more difficult. Eightysix teams world-wide will fight it out for 16 places in Moscow.
To qualify, Canada will have to win its northern CONCACAF zone, then finish first or second in a three-team round robin with the other two CONCACAF zone champions.
And the obstacles to Puerto Rico and Moscow will be compounded if the national team continues losing its players to the pros.
“I don’t know whether we’re going to be able to stem the tide very much longer,” says King of the defections.
He cites two reasons for players turning professional.
“One is the glamour of professional soccer,” he says. “The other is the intensity of our national team program, which has reached a point where it’s almost a full-time avocation. However, amateurs who are turning professional, I believe, are not doing it for the money.”
King points out that an amateur can take in as much in legitimate International Olympic Committee-approved expenses as a starting professional earns.
“It all boils down,” he says, “to keeping players’ interest and commitment. And that’s becoming increasingly difficult with the growth of professional soccer.”
King, however, is the first to admit that pro soccer has had a very positive effect on the game as a whole.
He points to Brazilian star Pele’s three-year stint with the New York Cosmos of the NASL.
In Pele’s first year, attendance at Cosmos matches was in the 5,000-10,000 range. Two years later, 74,901 fans turned out for the NASL Soccer Bowl championship.
“That was the impact of Pele,” says King. “And it was more than just attendance. Pele and several other worldclass stars had the same impact in focusing attention on the NASL and the growth of soccer in general.”
King points also to the continuing dominance of soccer players — particularly Canadian Brian Budd and American Kyle Rote Jr. — in television’s Superstars series as a key event in raising soccer’s stock in the eyes of North American sports fans.
Underlying the acceptance of soccer as a major sport in North America, says King, has been a “phenomenal increase” in participation, particularly in the younger age groups.
Participation in Canada at the youth level, he says, is increasing at the rate of 30 per cent a year.
Much of soccer’s popularity, suggests King, has come at the expense of more traditional Canadian sports, particularly football.
Soccer, by comparison, is inexpensive. An entire soccer team can be outfitted for the cost of equipping a single football player.
Soccer is also responsible for fewer and less severe injuries.
“And,” adds King, “you can be a human being of normal dimensions and still play soccer. But most of all, it’s fun to play.”
The soccer boom has led to increased media attention and, with it, an increased interest on the part of corporate sponsors.
As an example of media interest, King points to negotiations now in progress between the Global Television Network and “a major corporate sponsor” to televise the games of the Global-owned Toronto Blizzard (formerly Metros- Croatia) of the NASL.
The important spin-off here for amateur soccer, says King, will be a stipulation in the sponsor’s contract providing substantial support to the sport at the grass-roots level.
The CSA currently boasts three major corporate sponsors — Coca Cola, Adidas, and Labatts — and is talking to four more — a brewery, an insurance company, and two chocolate bar manufacturers.
Corporate funding of amateur soccer already amounts to $100,000 a year. This amount, coupled with approximately $100,000 the CSA raises through player registrations, provides soccer with more autonomy than some national sport governing bodies.
“It gives us a certain amount of pride to be able so say we’re not totally dependent on Sport Canada,” says King.
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