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Cancelling friendly a 'tough decision' for Canadian soccer team: captain

VANCOUVER — Refusing to play a friendly game against Panama on Sunday was a decision the Canadian men's soccer team didn't take lightly, says Atiba Hutchinson.
Canadian national men's soccer team midfielder Atiba Hutchinson jogs during a training session for a CONCACAF Nations League match against Curacao, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Refusing to play a friendly game against Panama on Sunday was a decision the Canadian men's soccer team didn't take lightly, says Hutchinson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER — Refusing to play a friendly game against Panama on Sunday was a decision the Canadian men's soccer team didn't take lightly, says Atiba Hutchinson.

Locked in a prolonged contract dispute with Canada Soccer, the sport's national governing body, the players felt withholding their services was a must, the Canadian captain said Wednesday. 

“It was a tough decision for us on the team,” Hutchinson said. “It took a lot for us, but in our eyes, we felt like we needed to make a stance. And we felt that we truly believe that was the right thing for us to do as a group.”

The players and Canada Soccer have not reached an agreement on a new contract, but the team will still kickoff CONCACAF Nations League play Thursday when they host Curaçao at B.C. Place. 

After scrapping a pair of sessions on Friday and Saturday, the team returned to training at the University of B.C. on Monday and Tuesday before moving to B.C. Place on Wednesday. 

Though there's no new deal, Canada Soccer’s acting general secretary, Earl Cochrane, characterized conversations between the two sides as “positive — perhaps even more than positive. 

“It’s been equal parts education, equal parts negotiation," he said.

No deadline has been set for the negotiations to be completed, Cochrane added.

“I think how the conversations go will determine how long it takes,” he said. “But I don't envision it's going to take too long. I don't think we're going to be bouncing up against the World Cup.”

Ranked 38th in the world, the Canadians clinched a spot in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a 4-0 win over Jamaica on March 27. They'll be making their first World Cup appearance since 1986.

But at a time when the squad’s popularity is at an all-time high, there have been some stumbles.

Canada was set to take on Iran in a friendly on June 5 but the matchup drew heated criticism, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying it “wasn't a very good idea.”

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.

Canada Soccer cancelled the game on May 26. Panama was named as the replacement opponent on May 31.

On Sunday, that match was cancelled just hours ahead of kickoff with the players releasing a statement saying they felt "disrespected" and wanted more from Canada Soccer, including changes in the organization's leadership, World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a "comprehensive friends and family package," and an equitable compensation structure between the men's and women's national teams. 

No one wanted to see the game cancelled, said head coach John Herdman. 

"And I don't think we'll ever see that again. This country wasn't ready for what just happened," he said. 

"No one knew what was coming. No one was ready for this type of negotiation. We made mistakes on both sides and now we can't make them again. The next generation of leaders and players, they're not going to make any mistakes. The processes will be in place. Now people know what's going to happen.”

The unexpected pause was hard on the entire team, Herdman said. 

“It’s been an emotional week,” he said. “This wasn't how we expected it to go this week. But they’re back, focused and hopefully we can get on the pitch and start inspiring people again."

When Canada takes on No. 79 Curaçao on Thursday, it will be the first match action for the group since it wrapped up its final round of World Cup qualifiers with a 1-0 loss to Panama on March 30.

“I think this will be a good test,” Herdman said. “And I think these boys will be tested. There’s a couple that are going to be coming in a bit fatigued, and I’m not going to allow that to be an excuse. So, fingers crossed, we can put on a performance.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2022.

Carol Schram, The Canadian Press