Kara Lang is a legend in Canadian soccer. The record-holder for the youngest player ever to score in a full international in women’s football (15 years old, against Wales in 2002), scorer of one the more memorable goals in Canadian soccer history, against Sweden in the semi-final of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, her retirement this past January at the age of 24 was bittersweet. Bitter, because Canada was deprived of it one its great soccer talents, her career cut short by injury. Sweet, because she joins us now as an expert pundit, decidedly NOT in the Alan Shearer mould of former-player-turned-analyst. She adds another valuable voice in Canadian soccer.
As a former Canadian international, Lang, perhaps more than most, knows the ins-and-outs and successes and failure of the Canadian development set-up. So, following Canada’s disastrous performance in Germany for this past FIFA Women’s World Cup, I asked her a few questions about what went wrong.
1) It seems everyone in Canadian media is looking for someone or something to blame for Canada’s performance at the FWWC. Was this a problem in pre-tournament planning, with Carolina Morace’s approach, with Canada’s player development set-up, or just a simple pair of poor performances? All of the above? None of the above?
There is a lot of finger pointing going on right now, that’s for sure. I don’t think there is one single person or thing to blame. It was definitely not a matter of poor pre-tournament planning. While it wasn’t 100% ideal, it was the best situation under the circumstances. The residency in Rome allowed the team to play more international matches leading up to the WC than any other major tournament before. Had the team been located in Canada, they never would have been able to secure games against anyone other than the US. That being said, it was not ideal. If there was good competition in Canada, obviously a residency camp in Canada would have been better, but who would they play against? The biggest lesson we learned as a program in the past after failures at major tournaments was that to compete against the best teams in the world, you need to play against them consistently throughout the year.
Canada’s player development set-up (which is virtually non-existent) is definitely a big-picture issue and something that needs to be addressed. However with the players Carolina Morace had selected, she still managed to have the most successful year in Canadian soccer history leading up to the World cup. There absolutely needs to be a bigger player pool to choose from for the future, and long-term player development is the only solution to that—but not something that will change overnight. And at the end of the day—lack of player development or not—this team was a contender going into the tournament. It wasn’t unrealistic to expect them at least to make it out of their group.
So above everything else, I would have to say that this was a matter of two poor performances on the day. I believe this team had and still has all the tools necessary to at least compete with the other teams in the top 10. The only explanation that I can think of is that it was a mental toughness thing… lack of focus. They were prepared—they just didn’t execute.
2) More on that point—why do you think Canada performed so well in the pre-tournament lead up, but faltered after an encouraging loss against Germany?
Pre-tournament they performed up to their potential. They were training and thinking like sophisticated soccer players and had a confidence that this program had never had before. Again, during the tournament they choked. It’s not an excuse, it’s not okay, but it’s also not a new concept in sports. It’s possible that the expectations got to them, that they allowed the pressure to affect them. For the first time ever the Canadians weren’t the under-dogs at the WC… it’s an unfamiliar position for this program and I can only speculate since I wasn’t a member of the team—but perhaps the expectations were too much for them to handle.
3) To what extent do you think Carolina Morace is responsible for Canada’s performance? It seems some of her more pointed critics have had it out for her for a while, criticizing the CSA’s pursuit of her this past winter, and claiming she has not fulfilled her promise to advise the Canadian girls program here at home. Do you think Canada’s 0-3 performance have lent their claims any credibility?
I think the team needs to accept responsibility as a whole for their performance—so that does include coaching staff, yes. But I don’t think you can claim it’s all Carolina’s fault. She brought this team to a new level. I believe she did everything she could with what she had . The CSA needs to accept responsibility as well. Where have they been since the fall-out? Why aren’t they even commenting on the situation? You would expect that the federation would at least have something to say…
4) On that note, many prominent bloggers, journalists and players have long criticized the Canadian Soccer Association’s sluggish approach to implementing nationwide player development reform. What are the primary problems you see with Canada’s national soccer program? What do you think ordinary fans, journalists and others can do to help encourage change?
There is no leadership in Canadian soccer. Our biggest problem is that we have a governing body that doesn’t govern anything- but that’s a whole other issue on it’s own. But if there was leadership there would be a push from the top to change the way we develop our youth. We need a comprehensive player development program that everyone in Canadian soccer understands and accepts and agrees to implement collectively. Surprisingly, the CSA actually has already created one—and it’s even quite good. (http://www.canadasoccer.com/wellness/Wellness_CoupeDuMonde.asp)
But much like everything else in Canadian soccer, it doesn’t get any exposure—no one has heard of it. It has to be adopted at the youth level by every coach in Canada. We don’t have a soccer culture in Canada—at least not yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create one. We have to start teaching our youth how to be soccer players, not just athletes that happen to play soccer. We have to demand a higher level from our coaches and our clubs—everyone needs to be on the same page if we’re ever going to move forward.