Canadian Women’s Soccer: A sleeping giant?

12/03/2013 § 1 Comment

Ross Armour photo

Vancouver Whitecaps’ Girls Elite Squad take on Columbus FC in the Metro Women’s Soccer League, January 2013, at Simon Fraser University: Ross Armour photo

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world and arguably can take its place as, and be branded, a global phenomenon. Yet as so often is seen, it is only the men’s professional side that is given intense coverage. In Canada, that theme is no different, despite a Women’s World Cup in Canada on the horizon as soon as 2015.

Carrie Serwetnyk, a 19-time capped former Canadian national team player, has launched a campaign based in Vancouver entitled, “Why The Women’s World Cup Matters”, that is looking to increase the awareness of the women’s game across Canada and globally. “I was a national team player and travelled all over the world with the game,” said Serwetnyk, who is also the publisher of Free Kick magazine. “As a player, I realized my best opportunities as a player and a coach were south of the border in the United States— the door was never open here.”

Carrie Serwetnyk, former Canadian national team player. Photo courtesy of freekickmag.com

Carrie Serwetnyk, former Canadian national team player. Photo courtesy of freekickmag.com

The campaign also has a goal to improve and create more opportunities for girls in the game, both on the playing and coaching side. “The system has been the same for decades. It’s almost all men who are profiting and there’s no women coming through the system as coaches and there are no jobs for them. So I decided to set up the website and approach the city, as they should be responsible for what’s happening in the city.”

Serwetnyk recently approached the Vancouver Park Board that, as a result, passed a resolution to improve player participation and leadership through coaching opportunities in women’s soccer.

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Vancouver Whitecaps’ Girls Elite Squad take on Columbus FC in the Metro Women’s Soccer League, January 2013, at Simon Fraser University: Ross Armour photo

The goal is to see more opportunities for women in coaching roles prior to the 2015 Women’s World Cup, at which Vancouver will be a host city. Notably, other host cities include Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Moncton and Montreal. The Park Board’s resolution stated, “recognizing women are underrepresented in leadership roles, staff will work with the City of Vancouver, Women’s Advisory Committee, Vancouver Field Sport Federation, Vancouver Sport Network and all of our sports partners to look at ways to improve participation in sport for women in Vancouver by 2015.”

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Samantha Donald, Whitecaps Girls Elite Squad, attempts to win the ball back from opponents West Kerrisdale FC during a Metro Women’s cup game, at mud-drenched Montgomery Park, February 2013: Lev Jackson photo

Serwetnyk has attended the last six men’s World Cups, most recently in South Africa in 2010. “South Africa was a jubilant experience. Blacks and whites were coming together and the people were so nice. Having been to the World Cup, this is an opportunity [in 2015] for us to inspire our country and show the world what changes we’ve made in Canada. That can be our legacy.”

She puts the inequality down to a jealousy factor in Canada, with the women’s team regularly outperforming the men on the national side of things. “There’s a jealousy because they’re good. Women are getting the attention and the men aren’t. Yet it’s still super intimidating as women are treated as a novelty and a weaker person,” she said. “The men don’t want women getting a piece of the pie. At the end of the day, they hire their friends as they don’t want women. There’s stubbornness there. Girls do not feel welcome as there’s no open-door policy in Canada.”

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A Whitecaps Girls Elite player advances with the ball against West Kerrisdale FC amidst terrible conditions at Montgomery Park in Vancouver: Lev Jackson photo

The Canadian women’s soccer team recently won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The team’s best World Cup finish came back in 2003 where it lost the third place match to hosts the United States. The team has also qualified for every World Cup since 1995. The men’s team hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986, where they lost every game without scoring a goal. Serwetnyk also claims that despite the success on the women’s side, 90 per cent of funding still goes into the men’s side. “We should have women throughout the country playing soccer and I realized it wasn’t worth going to the associations. The Whitecaps and all other associations should be promoting women.”

Jesse Symons, head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps Girls Elite squad, says his club does just that and believes a distinct amount of that promotion already goes on at the MLS club. “I think that there are opportunities for players here and for the local community to come out and watch matches,” said Symons. “The Whitecaps do a great job getting out into the community, both from a school community base, but also through camps and clinics and everything like that. Our players are products of that. Overall, it’s a good setup.” Symons portrays the contemplation of coverage of the women’s game as “a tricky one from a branding or marketing perspective.”

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Jesse Symons, head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps FC Girls Elite Squad. Photo courtesy of whitecapsfc.com

“I think the standard over the last few years is continually getting stronger and stronger. The Metro Women’s Soccer League Premier Division has definitely got a lot of strong teams and players that have gone to college but are back now and playing locally. The BC Soccer Premier League is looking to establish more top level players in a good environment so overall the level in B.C. is good now and it’s going to continually get better over the next few years with everything that’s offered for the players, both on the youth side and the senior side.”

Symons’ Girls Elite team has recently concluded an unbeaten regular season in the MWSL where it plays against teams from across North America. The Girls Elite program at the Vancouver Whitecaps is designed for B.C. women under the age of 18 and provides a playing platform to earn scholarships to colleges in North America.

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Chelsea Harkins, Whitecaps FC Girls Elite, runs with the ball during a match against SurDel FC at Simon Fraser University, February 2013: Ross Armour photo

Symons is hoping the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup will only enhance awareness of the women’s game. “I hope it does. There’s the U20 World Cup coming in 2014 and the senior Women’s World Cup coming in 2015. Those are the two big events that happen on a quadrennial cycle. There is a lot going on in the years leading into those whether it be the new national women’s soccer league or our U18 youth program, and all the different youth national team camps that these players go to. So there is some good marketing. I think if more people come out and watch then that will only establish more want for the sport.”

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Chelsea Harkins, Whitecaps FC Girls Elite, waits to cross the ball during a match against SurDel FC at Simon Fraser University, February 2013: Ross Armour photo

Jonathan McDonald, sports editor at The Province, says the main reason for the lack of coverage is simply down to an evident “bias” displayed against the women’s game. “In terms of general coverage, there is a built-in bias that exists towards men’s sports over women’s, except it seems at unique and special events such as the Olympics or the World Cup,” said McDonald. “It’s not just soccer though, it’s the same with women’s hockey— there is a barrier and a wall there.”

Having said that, McDonald believes his own newspaper has done a “pretty good job” at covering women’s soccer and giving the game more exposure. “I can’t speak for all media, but there has been a change in the coverage in the past two years. One of the reasons for that is that people are realizing that women’s soccer is exciting and Canada has found success within, so the bias is just ignorant. We have one of the best players arguably on the planet in Christine Sinclair who we first wrote about when she was 14 or 15.” Sinclair, from Burnaby, captained her country to that Olympic bronze medal in London, scoring a tournament record six goals in the process. She is also Canada’s all-time leading caps and goal scorer.

Christine Sinclair The Province

Christine Sinclair, current captain of the Canadian women’s national team. Photo courtesy of The Province

McDonald envisions himself and colleagues at The Province providing extensive coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015, when it comes round. “PostMedia has newspapers in most of the host cities. I know at The Province we will be making an effort as a group to make sure we’re the number one source outside of the broadcast rights holder. We’ll go huge on it and will be treating it like the massive event it is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the NFL or women’s soccer, I am just interested in a good story and we have had so many good stories from women’s soccer in recent times.”

Whether McDonald’s coverage promises will be followed through with, only now remains to be seen come 2015 and prior. Nevertheless, with an apparent change in coverage proceedings and an apparent growth taking place within the women’s game, it is clear that that side of things is well and truly part of the global phenomenon.

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Whitecaps FC Girls Elite versus Columbus FC at SFU: Ross Armour photo

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