Up until a month ago, everything seemed to be going right for Canada Soccer.
The national women’s squad is the defending Olympic champion, the men’s team had clinched its first World Cup appearance since 1986 and the country was preparing to be co-host of the men’s World Cup in 2026.
Moments like Sam Adekugbe’s snowbank celebration in Edmonton amped up the excitement among fans across the country amid a string of wins for the men’s squad.
How quickly the momentum has stalled — and along with it, a golden financial opportunity.
First, Canada Soccer arranged a friendly match with Iran, which was eventually cancelled after widespread opposition. The replacement game on Sunday against Panama was also turfed just hours before kickoff after the Canadian players refused to take the field over wage concerns.
The upcoming game on Thursday against Curaçao is now in doubt.
‘I would consider this a crisis’
Apart from the Canadian clubs recently playing in the NHL playoffs, the national men’s soccer team was arguably the hottest ticket in the country because of their recent dominance and a squad of young, entertaining players that reflect the diversity of the nation.
The financial prospects were equally unprecedented. Not only is the opportunity lost, but there will be financial consequences for the national sport body for the cancelled matches.
“The demand was huge and when they have a time like this, they have to strike. They have to strike when it’s hot. They need the funding,” said David Chong, managing director of MKTG Canada, a sports marketing agency.
“Even before this issue with the [Iran] friendly being cancelled, I think Canada Soccer was struggling to keep up with demand for simple things like merchandise,” he said.
MKTG represents Scotiabank and helped broker a sponsorship deal with CONCACAF, the sport body that hosted the recent World Cup qualifying tournament where Canada finished top of the table. MKTG has also held talks with Canada Soccer on behalf of several clients pursuing sponsorship opportunities in recent years, although Chong said no deals were eventually struck.
The controversy over the proposed Iran match may force potential sponsors to rethink a relationship with Canada Soccer, he said, since companies always take into account an organization’s track record, as well as its reliability and reputation.
“I would consider this a crisis for them,” he said. “There is a long-term impact to consider, which is brand health.”
The performance of the men’s squad to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in decades was a feel-good story for fans but is becoming a heartbreaking tale.
“This is a gong show,” said Sportsnet’s Stephen Brunt about Canada Soccer. “It’s a mess of their own making.”
The families of those who died aboard Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down the plane in 2020 — killing all 176 passengers and crew members, including 85 Canadians and permanent residents — described the planned exhibition match as an insult, especially given persistent concerns about the IRGC’s possible ties to Iran’s team.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it a bad idea for Canada Soccer to invite the Iranian soccer team, as did many others who condemned the match.
An international exhibition game is known as a “friendly” — but it isn’t just for fun. The games can be a crucial part of on-field preparation in the lead up to an important tournament like the World Cup.
They are also part of the backbone of how national federations, like Canada Soccer, generate revenue. Typically, a visiting team is paid a sum of money to play the match, while the host country collects funds through ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcast deals.
Canada Soccer had agreed to pay Iran’s soccer federation $400,000 to play an exhibition game in Vancouver, according to the head of Iran’s national team.
Expenses could pile up as tickets are refunded for both cancelled games, payments are made to both Iran and Panama and other costs related to hosting the proposed matches arise.
The reported sum agreed to between Canada and Iran was a reasonable amount, said Pierre Azaria, the general manager of MCI Sport, a Switzerland-based agency that organizes international matches and training camps for soccer clubs and national federations.
International matches are often expensive, he said, considering the cost of private aircraft, security and hotels. Usually, a country’s soccer federation would send at least 55 people to such a game, a contingent of players, coaches and staff.
The highest-ranking squads can insist on single match fees of between $2 million and $3 million, he said.
In the upcoming World Cup, Canada will be facing African and European teams, so scheduling exhibition games against countries from those regions in advance of the November tournament would have been ideal.
When Canada was looking for potential opponents, Azaria said he was working to arrange a match with Tunisia.
Azaria said Canada Soccer wasn’t willing to pay the amount of money Tunisia was proposing.
“It didn’t happen at the end of the day,” he said.
Instead, Tunisia’s squad will earn more than a million dollars, said Azaria, to play in Japan.
Tunisia, Iran and Canada have all qualified for the World Cup. Iran is ranked 21th in the world, while Tunisia is in 35th spot, followed by Canada at 38.
Iran is often considered a pariah and is not an opponent in high demand.
“For a lot of teams, I don’t even propose Iran because politics can be problematic,” Azaria said. “Why should we work with the risk of a scandal?”
A Canada Soccer official said the organization was unable to respond to a request for an interview.
Canada Soccer has the great fortune right now of on-pitch success from both its men’s and women’s squads, but that’s not what’s dogging the organization.
“This is perhaps one of the best moments in Canadian soccer history from the business perspective,” said Ann Pegoraro, a sport management professor at the University of Guelph.
Following the Iran controversy, Pegoraro said she questions whether Canada Soccer is prepared or professional enough to make the right decisions.
“What we saw in this is the business side of the house making a pretty big misstep when arguably the light is shining brightest on it,” she said.
The players didn’t take the field over the weekend against Panama because of a salary dispute. They are calling for more transparency from Canada Soccer, changes in the organization’s leadership, and World Cup compensation that includes 40 per cent of prize money and a “comprehensive friends and family package” for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Players also want a review of the deal Canada Soccer signed with Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) in 2019. The 10-year agreement sees CSB represent both the men’s and women’s national teams in all sponsorship and broadcast deals.
WATCH | An inside look at the failed Panama game:
In a statement, CSB chair Scott Mitchell said he was “incredibly disappointed” about the cancellation of the Panama match but supports the players in a call for transparency from Canada Soccer.
But Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis has said the proposal players have put forward is not financially viable.
“I can’t accept that offer that will put our organization in a financial position that is untenable,” he said at a Sunday afternoon press conference, while also apologizing to fans.
The cancellation of both matches has created international headlines, which could cause reputational harm abroad.
On Sunday, Canada Soccer executives said they moved mountains to co-ordinate the Panama match on short notice and apologized to the visiting soccer body for the failed game.