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deVos paints grim picture of Canada Soccer’s finances

Steven Vitoria Jason deVos Canada Steven Vitoria and Jason deVos - The Canadian Press

Canada Soccer’s finances have worsened to the point that both senior national teams may not play in international windows this fall and the organization may eventually need to contemplate filing for bankruptcy protection, interim general secretary Jason deVos said in an interview with TSN.

This comes as the women’s national team prepares for the World Cup next month and the men’s team begins competing in the Gold Cup this week.

“We are in a real struggle. It’s not imminent, but we need to explore what bankruptcy entails and how it might affect our organization,” said deVos, a former captain of the Canadian men’s national team who was appointed to his executive position in April. “We don’t have enough revenue coming in for the programs that need to be run, and that includes everything from grassroots coach education and referee development to youth national teams and our senior men’s and women’s teams.” 

“…[bankruptcy] has been discussed, but not in the sense of this is a strategy or this is something that we're looking at. It's been discussed more from my own perspective to learn about it. It is absolutely the last option that I want to consider or even think about. But I would be remiss if I didn't do my due diligence on this.”

Canada Soccer has spiralled into a financial crisis in recent months.

Even with public funding (the federal government provided the federation with $5 million in 2022), Canada Soccer burned through more than $4 million last year. Its cash reserves plunged to $2.4 million at the end of 2022, according to Canada Soccer’s financial statements, down from $7.1 million a year earlier. In May, Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge ordered an independent audit of the federation, which will cover Mar 2017 to March 2023, citing a “lack of financial transparency.”

For more than a year, Canada Soccer has been in negotiations to sign new collective bargaining agreements with both senior national teams. Those talks have resulted in progress since the start of 2023, deVos said, but there are still no agreements in place.

“I still think of myself as a player, and I want the national teams to know that I’m on their side,” deVos said. “I need for them to understand we only have so much money and there’s only so much we can give them. I don’t want to have to take money from programming resources to provide more compensation. I know the players understand that, but they also want what they feel they deserve.”

Canada Soccer officials have also been in talks with the private company Canadian Soccer Business (CSB) in recent months to renegotiate a controversial media and sponsorship agreement that was signed in 2018.

According to that contract, which will be in place through 2037 if CSB decides to extend an initial 10-year deal, CSB pays Canada Soccer an annual fee of between $3-$4 million.

In exchange, the private company, which is owned and controlled by Canadian Premier League (CPL) team owners, receives all of the revenue from the national teams' media rights and sponsorships.

The contract, first publicly detailed by TSN in July 2022, has come under withering criticism during a series of Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage hearings in Ottawa over the past year.

Members of Parliament have repeatedly pressed Canada Soccer for answers about why the organization handed away such valuable rights for 20 years at a time, particularly after Canada had agreed in April 2017 to join the U.S. and Mexico in a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

Canada Soccer negotiated the CSB deal in late 2017 at a time when many in the media reported the U.S., Canada and Mexico were favourites to secure the World Cup ahead of a rival bid from Morocco. Winning the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the largest ever with 104 matches, up from 64 during the 2022 event in Qatar, has significantly enhanced the value of Canada Soccer’s media and sponsorship rights.

Despite repeated public assurances from Canada Soccer officials that CSB had agreed to “modernize” their contract, it's unclear if tangible offers to retool the contract have been presented.

"CSB is open to amending its deal with Canada Soccer,” CSB spokeswoman Laura Armstrong wrote in an email to TSN. “Those conversations are ongoing. For context, while CSB has not specifically used the term 'modernizing' when discussing changes to the deal in the past, as federation officials did when they testified, CEO Mark Noonan has previously said on the record that CSB is open to making amendments to the agreement."

“I’ve told CSB that we are in this together,” deVos said. “I know how important it is to have professional leagues for men and women in this country, but that cannot come at the expense of our men’s and women’s national team. Our youth boys’ and girls’ national teams need to develop the best players in Canada who go on and succeed at the international level because that success is going to drive the game forward.”

The impact of Canada Soccer’s cash crisis could be seen on June 19, a day after Canada lost 2-0 to the U.S. in the CONCACAF Nations League final in Las Vegas. On an Air Canada Rouge flight to Toronto, national team players including Jonathan David, Jonathan Osorio, and Richie Laryea sat in coach class.

“In terms of them flying business class, it's transatlantic flights only,” deVos said. “We would love to be able to fly all of our players in business class on every flight, but we don't have the resources to do that. It’s not that we're saying, ‘You don't deserve it, or you don't need it.’ We can't afford it.”

Because of the federation’s cash shortage and the fact that most other national teams have already booked matches, it’s possible the men’s national team may not play any games in two of three international windows between September and November.

deVos said the men’s national team has already missed out on the chance to play matches against Korea and Saudi Arabia in September. deVos was days into his executive position with Canada Soccer when he was advised that a match agent (someone paid to broker games between national teams) had tabled an offer for Canadian men’s team to play Korea in England and Saudi Arabia in Austria during the September window.

Saudi Arabia was willing to offer Canada Soccer $500,000 to play, which meant the cost to the federation of playing both games in Europe would have been less than $200,000.

Beyond the fact that Canada, currently the No. 47 ranked national men’s team, had the opportunity to play credible competition – Korea is No. 27 and Saudi Arabia is No. 54 and both played in the World Cup in Qatar – having games in Europe would have had the added benefit of allowing Canada’s players with European club teams not to have to travel as far for training camps and games.

deVos said told an agent that he couldn’t immediately commit because he needed to explore the financial consequences of agreeing to the games. He said Canada Soccer officials believe that if the men’s national team plays in its international windows this fall, then the federation would need to ensure the women’s team also schedule games in their windows.

Playing two matches and running a camp in a single window can cost between $500,000 and $1 million per team (depending on whether teams need to book charter flights) and there is concern within Canada Soccer that having both senior national teams playing in their three windows this fall may further drain the federation’s cash.

As deVos discussed the offer with colleagues, the agent secured Mexico to play those matches rather than Canada.

“The challenge is there isn't enough budget to be able to make September and October happen at this moment,” deVos said. “What we need is to play against tier-one opponents in games that move the needle. At this point, trying to find games against top teams in September and October is challenging.”

According to FIFA’s match calendar, national men’s teams are eligible to play two games in each of three windows Sept. 4-12, Oct. 9-17, and Nov. 13-21. deVos said the men’s team will definitely play in the November window when teams are scheduled to qualify for next year’s 16-team Copa America tournament. It’s still possible the federation’s cash crisis could affect plans for training sessions.

Julian de Guzman, another former captain of the Canadian men’s national team who now works as a TSN soccer analyst, said the timing of Canada having to turn down offers for matches is horrible, with the 2026 World Cup three years away.

“We are losing out on games that our team needs,” de Guzman said. “A number of national team players have sensed this kind of situation was around the corner. A lot of the issues we have heard about with Canada Soccer, I’m not sure they are repairable because the foundation of this federation has been so poor for so many years and the trust between players and the federation has been so broken.”

“From a fan’s standpoint, you see what you see on the field. We have so much talent in Canada with both national teams and they have done a great job to mask what has happened within the federation. But the truth is that Canada Soccer does not have the resources to match the kind of off-field work that is being put in by Mexico and the U.S. That’s the uncomfortable truth.”

Two match agents who are paid to arrange games between national teams told TSN in interviews that even though the Canadian men’s national team is in now in a position to secure modest match fees from some lower-ranked national teams, Canada would probably be required to pay more than $5 million to play against a top European country.

One match agent, who asked not to be identified citing the confidentiality of match fees and negotiations, said Canada’s men’s team could still schedule games in September in the U.S. against Oman and Uzbekistan, ranked 73rd and 74th in the world, respectively.

“I think people in football around the world see Canada is doing so much better,” said Alireza Nikoomanesh, a match agent based in Toronto who has helped arrange matches for men’s national teams from countries including Jordan, Zambia, Iran, and Oman. “Canada may not have won their three games at the World Cup, but I think people recognize they did very well, considering they were playing in a group with Croatia and Morocco, who both advanced to the semifinals… There are a number of national teams that will pay to play Canada now.”

The national women’s team, meantime, is scheduled to play its first world cup game on July 20 against Nigeria.

While deVos said training for the tournament would not be compromised, he said it’s also possible that the national women’s team, which is ranked No. 7 in the world and is the defending Olympic champion, will not play any games following the Women’s World Cup this summer, other than two games against Jamaica that are necessary for Olympic qualification in September.

FIFA’s match calendar says there are windows for national women’s teams to play two games each during windows Sept. 18-26, Oct. 23-31, and Nov. 27-Dec. 5.

Men’s national team coach John Herdman discussed the federation’s precarious financial situation a week ago after the loss to the U.S. in Las Vegas. Herdman pointed out that both the U.S. and Mexico had pre-cams and longer training camps than Canada did. The U.S. team gathered on June 4, seven days before the Canadians did.

“We brought a World Cup to our country and we’re not serious about winning it,” Herdman said. “We’ve got to get real, and quick… It's not a secret the organization has been suffering financially. Even through the World Cup qualification and your head coach is raising money to make sure we've got charter flights [and] security on those charter flights. We've the best generation of players we've had and there's more coming. You can see it… We've got to figure this out financially."

deVos said he supports Herdman’s position.

“John and I are very much aligned here,” deVos said. “You saw in World Cup qualifying what the men did. They did that because of John's leadership, bringing that whole group together. And we had the same preparation time as all the other teams. And so, when John says last Sunday that the lack of preparation hurts, it absolutely does.

“We need to do more as a nation to try and help our players succeed on the international level because if we do that, the game is gonna go places it's never been before in this country. We don’t want to look back 10 years down the road saying, ‘What if we did this, what if we did that?’ We’ve got to fight for this today.”