Opinion: Canada Olympic golden girls without golden treatment

Members of a Team Canada pose with their gold medals.
Gold medalist members of Team Canada pose with their medals during the Women's Football Competition Medal Ceremony at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Instead of coming home to Canada’s west coast to continue their Olympic victory tour, the Canada women’s soccer team is currently in Mexico. 

The reasons given for the change in plans make sense. With many of the European sides tied up in FIFA World Cup qualifying, the pool for potential opposition is small. The challenges posed by approved COVID-19 vaccines, the Canada Women’s only option was to confirm two friendlies in Mexico.

While the reason is understandable, the late communication and sudden change aggravated fans of the Canada women’s soccer team. It added another level of frustration towards Canada Soccer and the federation’s treatment of the Olympic champions.

Merchandising woes

One issue is the lack of merchandise available for the women’s team. It is possible to customise the men’s jerseys with the name of a CANWNT player, but few women’s team jerseys are actually available. At one point, the customizable options for the men’s jersey did not even include every medallist from Tokyo. Luckily for fans, members of the Women’s team created their own line of clothing.

Insufficient exposure

While fans have happily spent their money directly supporting the players, many have drawn comparisons between the treatment that the women’s and men’s national teams are receiving from Canada Soccer. The women’s team has been a regular top ten fixture in FIFA rankings, but the men’s team has not seen the same success. Amidst their FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign, the Canadian men have just tied their all-time highest FIFA ranking: 40. 

The success of the men’s campaign is good news for Canadian soccer, but the new spotlight highlights the disparity in treatment. At the women’s victory tour stop in Ottawa, there was one small truck of merchandise. At the men’s October qualifying game in Toronto, there were numerous stalls outfitted with various jerseys, scarves, and t-shirts. 

It’s not only about the experience at the game. It’s also fans’ ability to watch games at home. OneSoccer is a Canadian streaming service with the rights to national team matches. These matches, along with CONCACAF and Canadian Premier League games, are available for $9.99 CAD/month.

Recently, the men’s FIFA World Cup qualification games have also aired on national television networks, such as TSN and SportsNet. The women’s games — even ones of importance, like Olympic qualifiers — are only offered on OneSoccer. Oft times, friendlies are unavailable on OneSoccer, limiting the number of people who can watch. When Canadian fans look to their southern neighbours in the U.S., it’s hard not to feel hard done by — the US women’s national team’s friendlies are aired regularly on prominent networks such as Fox and CBS. 

Even within OneSoccer, commentary mainly focuses on the men’s game. Mainly, this includes Canada’s male players, the Canadian Premier League, and the international scene in men’s football. Fans of the women’s team have noticed the comparably lacklustre discussion of Canadian women’s team players, especially outside of qualifying cycles.

Unequal treatment

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the ongoing investigations of which Canada Soccer is a part.

On Friday, November 12, Canada Soccer released a statement announcing a third-party investigation into the conduct and dismissal of Bob Birarda. In 2008, Birarda was dismissed from his post as coach of the Canada women’s under-20 team after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Canada Soccer’s announcement may seem indicative of positive change. However, the organisation did not acknowledge the demands issued by the Professional Footballers Association Canada.

The Vancouver Whitecaps is conducting a concurrent investigation, and unlike Canada Soccer, has agreed to meet the players’ demands. For many fans, this is seen as another one of Canada Soccer’s failings. Why won’t they meet the demands of women who experienced unsafe treatment as they progressed within the federation?

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Many fans point to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s itinerary as an example of the clear discrepancy in treatment. The Prime Minister visited the men’s team before their FIFA World Cup qualification against Mexico in Edmonton, but did not visit the women’s team in Ottawa.

While the Prime Minister was arguably occupied that weekend due to his imminent cabinet swearing-in ceremony, to fans, it was indicative of a larger sentiment within Canada Soccer:

‘Both teams play soccer, but we only promote the men’.

It’s a sentiment that, frankly, is disrespectful to both the fans of and the players on the Canada women’s national team.

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