By now the story is the stuff of urban legend in Canadian soccer circles. Facing the biggest game in years and playing the first meaningful game in Toronto in a generation, the senior men’s national team was struggling to find its grove against Jamaica in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Everyone understood that a win was vital. Yet, allegedly, when the Canadian team entered the dressing room for its halftime talk, then manager Dale Mitchell disappeared into the coach’s room without a word. There he sat for the full 15 minutes.
No adjustments. No speech. No coaching. The Canadian team was left to their own devices in the biggest international game that most had ever played.
The result was a tepid 1-1 draw that, when combined with a loss to Honduras in Montreal days later, all-but-eliminated Canada from South Africa barely after the qualifying round had started.
This story circulated around the team for the rest of the qualifying campaign. It was used as a weapon by Mitchell’s detractors in an effort to remove him as coach. It was widely suggested that those efforts were coming from inside the dressing room, which was led by a small group of senior players that did not care for how Mitchell ran the team.
It’s important here to stress that this was the stuff of rumour and innuendo. It’s never been proven that Mitchell failed to provide leadership on that crucial day. However, that the rumour was so pervasive does illustrate a truism about the Canadian men’s team—for more than a decade there has been something rotten around the side.
It’s hard to imagine a team less successful with fewer people taking responsibility and more people trying to pass the blame onto someone else for the failings. With Canada, it’s always the other guy’s fault.
Flash forward to the last days of 2012. With the reek of the 8-1 embarrassment to Honduras still hanging in the air, borderline international Olivier Occean decided to go off on departed head coach Stephen Hart in an interview with Radio Canada.
He said: “Looking at the training sessions it wasn’t really top and lacked professionalism. He was like an amateur and did not seem to know how to manage the team. The sad thing is that we had a great group of players.”
We’ll give him a tiny little bit of credit for at least being upfront about it. However, to hear a player—particularly a player that had as many red cards as goals in the semi-final stage of qualifying—try to place the blame elsewhere is a bit much.
The timing of Occean’s remarks stands out. Stephen Hart is one of the few people involved that has taken responsibility for the outcome. And he did so quickly after the fact, with a dignity that we all should hope to emulate if even in a similar situation.
Hart probably wasn’t up to the task. He struggled to make in-game adjustments and the team clearly wasn’t psychologically prepared to deal with the hostile environment they faced in Panama and Honduras.
But, do you know who else wasn’t up the task? Occean and the rest of the “great group of players” that lost by seven goals to Honduras. Bluntly put, it wasn’t Hart that was marking Jerry Bengtson that day. Hart wasn’t the one sent off for violent conduct against Cuba either. No, that was Occean. José Mourinho could have been managing Canada this cycle and it’s unlikely the result would have been much different.
The Canadian players have demonstrated time and time again that they aren’t skilled enough and lack the mental strength of past generations of Canadian players to make up for that skill deficiency with some good old fashioned effort.
Sadly, until Occean and other members of Canada’s Selfish Generation start to look in the mirror and take some responsibility for the unforgivable failings of this program, nothing will ever change.