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Ottawa Cit.: Soccer moving in the right direction


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The Beautiful Game


Canadian soccer moving in the right direction

Richard Starnes

The Ottawa Citizen

1100 words

20 January 2007

Ottawa Citizen




Copyright © 2007 Ottawa Citizen

As most of us know, the North American media view soccer with scant respect and are even more disparaging about the women's side of the sport. Today's the day for Canadians to pay attention.

This September you might be cheering something very un-Canadian -- world champions.

Why? Because a B.C. entrepreneur has coughed up a considerable amount of money and this country's two top women's clubs have put country before club. I don't think this combination has happened before in any sport in Canada.

Greg Kerfoot is a rich man and he loves soccer. That's why he owns the Vancouver Whitecaps, and that's why he has emerged as the power behind the establishment of another, very exclusive, club.

He's a man who keeps himself in the background, but there was no way of stopping his name getting out this week when the Canadian Soccer Association revealed that the entire Canadian women's soccer squad is about to move into a residency training camp in Vancouver.

It will be there -- almost continuously -- until the Women's World Cup finals in China in September.

The Whitecap Foundation -- which should probably be more aptly named the Kerfoot Foundation since it is his money that funds the thing -- will pay each player on the squad. And more will come as carded athlete money from Sport Canada. In addition, players will be provided with downtown apartments.

My first reaction was to call CSA president Colin Linford to congratulate him for masterminding a miracle. Imagine my surprise when he told me it had nothing to do with the CSA.

''Don't get me wrong. We think this is a phenomenal development,'' Linford said. ''But don't give us the credit, we had little to do with it.

''The initiative came from the clubs, from Greg Kerfoot and from coach (Even) Pellerud. It's unprecedented for clubs to give up their marquee players in the hope for international success.''

It certainly is.

Who is on or off the Pellerud squad will vary through the summer. But the Whitecaps will lose between 10 and 14 players, and the Ottawa Fury has passed over arguably its five best. These are two of the top four clubs in the W-League. You tell me if any other leading club would do this in any other sport.

I am not surprised John Pugh, the power behind the Fury, is a solid backer. He has always maintained his involvement in soccer has been to provide a better platform for players to reach their potential. That's what he has been doing with the Fury with increasing success. That is why he has Diana Matheson, Rhian Wilkinson, Taryn Swiatek, Robyn Gayle and Amy Vermeulen among the players on his books. They are all likely to be missing throughout the season.

Pugh is aware that a Canadian World Cup win would produce another spike in the popularity of a sport that already has about 400,000 Canadian women playing it. And that's what he wants, although he admits it is a ''bittersweet'' moment for the club.

Canada is such a vast country it has always been tough for national teams to get enough time together to allow them to meld into winners. Soccer is no exception. In fact, among the men, it is even harder, because most of the best play in Europe and their clubs don't give a toss about Canada's national team.

This entire miracle is mouthwatering for Pellerud. He took Norway to the world title some years back and has been trying to repeat with Canada almost ever since. I wager he would never have taken the job if he realized just how tough it is to get his players together. There never seemed to be enough money; never enough clubs or provinces ready to sacrifice for the common good; never enough backbone from the CSA to work out new strategies.

But that was then and this is now. Canada, ranked 11th in the world, has suddenly become a legitimate World Cup challenger.

''We have been taking small steps in the right direction,'' Pellerud said. ''Which is just as well, because women's soccer has become more competitive and overall, today, there are seven or eight teams with a chance at the World Cup. We are now definitely one of them.''

The man is being modest. If you read between the lines, it is Pellerud who has been doing most of the digging and delving, pursuing and persuading.

''I have been working on this for a long time,'' he says. ''It is so good to have it confirmed because this gives us the best opportunity to be as good as we can be.''

Maybe what happened at the Gold Cup in November -- Canada was squeezed out of the title in a thriller against the U.S. but qualified for the World Cup finals in the process -- influenced what came next.

''We had a 21/2-month residency camp leading up to it and it answered a lot of questions,'' Pellerud said. ''It certainly did. The players loved being in camp and acting as if they were Club Canada. And it worked.

''We opened dialogue a year ago, and I really did not have to persuade anyone. All anyone kept saying was if they had been me they would have pushed for the same thing. This is the right thing to do to improve the game in this country.''

I have to agree, although the pressure will now be on. None of the old excuses will work any longer. Linford, Pellerud and the players know that. But they are thrilled that the playing field has been levelled a little for the Canadian team.

Pellerud is bombastic as he points out he has been in the business for 30 years and ''my lifestyle is pressure.''

Linford's voice goes very soft when he suggests modestly: ''Maybe Canadian soccer is moving in the right direction.''

You bet it is.

Now all we need to do is bring home the World Cup.

Richard Starnes' Beautiful Game column appears Saturdays. Send comments and suggestions to rstarnes@the citizen.canwest.com. Find his blog at www.ottawacitizen.com .

Photo: Jae C. Hong, The associated press / Even Pellerud, who coached Norway to the world title in 1995, has the resources and players in place to do the same for Canada at the Women's World Cup finals this September.

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