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Canadian women soccer players defiant in wake of shameful treatment by Canada Soccer

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

News of the Canadian women’s soccer team’s job action sent sports media into a tizzy equal to the news of Toronto’s mayor quitting due to an extramarital affair, and the prime minister permitting UFOs to be shot down in Canadian airspace.

Last Friday, the women’s team, the Olympic champions from Tokyo, announced that they were taking “job action” ahead of the SheBelieves Cup in Florida this week. But they were quickly forced into returning to the field under threat of legal action by Canada Soccer, the organization that runs the team. All this just days before a key tune-up tournament to the Women’s World Cup this summer where the team is a strong contender.

Prior to the news, I had naively thought the team was in Florida simply preparing to play against the U.S., Japan and Brazil. Canada, ranked No. 7 in the world, plays No.1 U.S. on Thursday. I assumed the focus would be on the competition, exactly what the players should be focusing on. 

But I was wrong. And I don’t blame them.

WATCH | Canadian women to play in SheBelieves Cup under protest:

CanWNT to play ‘in protest’ at SheBelieves Cup after pay equity dispute with Canada Soccer

CBC Sports’ Shireen Ahmed breaks down the Canadian women’s national team’s pay equity dispute Canada Soccer.

Instead, they are embroiled in a (I put this very mildly) tête-à-tête with Canada Soccer. After sending in a list of demands to the federation and hearing nothing, they released the statement on Friday afternoon.

“Enough was enough a long time ago,” they said.

And the proverbial doodoo hit the fan. 

The soccer federation has cut a lot of the budget for 2023, including money for staff and participants for the women’s program. Ahead of the Olympics, the women’s team (CanWNT) had 28 players at camp; that number has been reduced to 20 for this tournament. That is not even enough players to have a full 11 vs 11 scrimmage. 

Cutting the budget that affects the opportunity for the CanWNT to be fully prepared for the World Cup — the most important tournament in the world of soccer — and slashes the youth program, is a devastating blow.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Shireen Ahmed discusses CanWNT labour dispute:

Canada’s women’s soccer team to play She Believes Cup under protest

CBC Sports contributor Shireen Ahmed gives an update on the Canada women’s soccer strike.

On Tuesday I attended a media call organized by the Canadian Soccer Player Association (CPSA), an independent entity representing the women’s players. It featured team captain Christine Sinclair, Janine Beckie, Quinn and Sophie Schmidt. Due to ongoing legal issues, there were some subjects the players said they could not comment on. One of those was Canada Soccer’s controversial deal with Canadian Soccer Business, which the women stated they have yet to see the specifics on.

Their candour was powerful: “Angry, frustrated, appalled and heartbroken,” said team stalwart Sophie Schmidt, who announced her pending retirement from international soccer at the beginning of the call. 

The tone of the call was heavy because the players, while incredibly articulate, were effectively baring their souls. The player representatives on the call admitted being “exhausted and deflated.” From time to time, their voices quavered.

Beckie apologized to fans for having to see them take these actions, but went on to thank their fans and supporters and send a message to young players that team is committed to seeing their fundamental asks come to fruition. She said what they want is “not a short-term fix.”

She added they want to “see and hear fans in Orlando.”

My heart sank a little. Just days ahead of the SheBelieves Cup, they are navigating this circus instead of being in game mode. This is an issue of working conditions and of Canada Soccer’s leadership. It is an issue of lack of transparency, a lack of respect for the teams working hard and for the history of the sport in Canada.

It is even getting the attention of the government and MPs connected to sport and heritage. This kind of accountability for Canada Soccer is essential. 

Although highly accomplished, the CanWNT has never received international media attention the way they are now. Their action has been covered on ESPN, Sports Illustrated and even the BBC. I can’t believe this is the kind of attention Canada Soccer wants ahead of their duties as co-host the next Men’s World Cup in 2026. 

The statement by the team also pointed to the fact they had not been paid for 2022. Soccer Canada replied with a statement of their own, saying that “retroactive payments” had been issued. This sting, combined with the lack of transparency and access to the financial books from Canada Soccer, have created a state of mistrust.

This is not the first time that Canada Soccer has been accused of subpar leadership, and American star Becky Sauerbrunn said the organization was treating the women’s team as second-class citizens instead of “world-class” players.

WATCH | Canadian women’s team continues fight for equal financial support:

Canada’s women’s soccer team calls for equal financial support

Canada’s women’s soccer team is calling on Canada Soccer to give them the same financial support afforded to the national men’s team leading up to the World Cup, and have even threatened not to play.

It also must be noted that this is not the first time an issue of unfair pay has hit the women’s game. 

Across the world, women’s programs have been treated with disregard. Sauerbrunn, along with teammate Alex Morgan, were among players who are in direct competition with the CanWNT but who showed very public support for the team and their plight. The American women’s team is no stranger to pay inequality. They sued their employers and were finally granted pay equity in a landmark case.

Canadian women's national team players pose in a line of two with their gold medals.
The Canadian women’s national soccer team poses with their Olympic gold medals after defeating Sweden in the women’s final at the Tokyo Olympics. (Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images)

In addition to solidarity from women’s players around the world, the Canadian men’s team also issued a statement of support. While it is heartening to know that the men’s side stands with the women’s side, it is so utterly unfortunate that it has to happen at all. On the media call, Beckie said they have had great support from the men’s team. But she also said that the women deserve equal opportunity as the men’s team.

“There’s no way we should be in this position,” Beckie said.

Beckie was at the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar and saw what resources the men’s team had access to. It didn’t go unnoticed by her or her teammates. The women’s team should absolutely have the same support and equal opportunity. 

“This is not over. We will continue to fight for everything we deserve and we will win. The SheBelieves is being played in protest,” Sinclair said on social media

The reality is that job action is not their first choice. Their first choice is to get paid properly and be supported by a federation for doing the work they are brilliant at doing. 

Having to go on strike is a nightmare for women athletes. We are far beyond the “just be grateful” condescension that female athletes have long had to deal with.  At this rate, I’m not even sure the relationship can be repaired. The lack of trust has been percolating for a long time. And it has reached pressure-cooker explosion status. 

Canada Soccer needs to reassess its own position and act in a manner that is befitting one of the top women’s teams in the world; that is actually their responsibility.

Because as it stands, the only thing they seem to do equitably is alienate both the men and women’s national soccer teams.

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