TORONTO — Canada Soccer gave way to mounting criticism Thursday, cancelling a planned friendly against Iran and acknowledging "we will strive to do better moving forward."
The June 5 game in Vancouver was supposed to be a showcase event, the first step forward for John Herdman's popular side since a stellar World Cup qualifying run that saw the Canadian men book their ticket to the sport's showcase for the first time since 1986.
Instead the choice of Iran as opponent sparked a firestorm with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Conservative MPs and B'nai Brith Canada among those decrying the game.
Of significance, the Canadian players were also part of the debate, with a player representative emailing a senior Canada Soccer official in the 24 hours before the game was nixed. The message was the team had concerns about the opponent.
At issue is whether Canada should host Iran given the Canadians who died on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 when it was shot down on Jan. 8, 2020, minutes after taking off from Tehran, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. The Canadian government says 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among the 176 people killed.
On Thursday morning, Canada Soccer called off the game via a one-paragraph statement. It fleshed out its reason for doing so in a second release later in the day.
"Canada Soccer has the best intentions in striving to ensure that the men’s national team gains important experience against FIFA World Cup teams in preparation for Qatar 2022," said the second statement.
"Over the past week, the untenable geopolitical situation of hosting Iran became significantly divisive, and in response, the match was cancelled. While we considered the external factors in selecting the optimal opponent in our original decision-making process, we will strive to do better moving forward.
"Canada Soccer will be conducting a thorough review of our processes for the hosting of international matches to ensure no stone is left unturned in our pursuit of excellence both on and off the pitch, including consultation with all stakeholders. We are committed to creating respectful and inclusive environments for teams, players, and fans."
The governing body said it was working "diligently" on a replacement opponent for June 5.
More than 40,000 tickets had been sold for the Iran game. Ticket-holders will get a refund and be offered a discount for the June 9 game against Curaçao in Vancouver.
The Iranian team was slated to arrive in Canada next Wednesday. Iran, ranked 21st in the world, is also headed to the World Cup in Qatar in November.
Canada Soccer president Nick Bontis said Iran was chosen as an opponent because the team had a "similar style" to Morocco, a team the Canadians will face at the World Cup.
"The issue of the geopolitical situation was considered, of course," he said in an interview
But perhaps not fully understood.
Bontis acknowledged that Canada Soccer, moving forward, can do better in being "a little more comprehensive in our political assessment of a match opponent."
"But I just want to reiterate that we're a footballing organization," he added. "And ultimately the political side of the teams that we choose to play against, those opinions are held by politicians, not football administrators."
Trudeau said last week the game "wasn't a very good idea," pointing the finger at Canada Soccer. The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims had called for Canada Soccer "to cancel the game immediately."
Association spokesman Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife Parisa and young daughter Reera were among those who died on Flight 752, welcomed Thursday's news while saying the game should never have been contemplated.
"I think the right decision has been made," he said in an interview.
He thanked all those who had spoken out or written letters to protest the Iran game. He said Canada Soccer had not responded to his association's entreaties, even before the match was officially announced.
Esmaeilion had noted the Iranian team would be accompanied abroad by intelligence and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, saying the IRGC is "the same entity that downed PS752."
On Thursday, he called on the federal government to place the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on a terrorist organization list.
"Then it makes it clear for everyone that any organization related to the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, it's a big no to sign a contract with them. If they show they are serious about justice and truth for the families and the victims, I think it would show the world what we think about the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Conservative MPs spoke out against the game Wednesday. And the PM said this week that it will be up to the Canada Border Services Agency whether the Iran team is allowed into the country.
Ralph Goodale, Canada's high commissioner to the United Kingdom, added his voice Wednesday to the rising chorus of disapproval.
"This behaviour by Canada Soccer is repugnant. It calls into question both the competence and the values of the organization," he tweeted.
In March 2020, Goodale became a special adviser to the PM "for Canada’s response to Iran’s shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752."
CBC, citing comments by Iran team director Hamed Estili to Iranian state-affiliated media outlet Tasnim, said Iran's soccer federation was being paid $400,000 to play the Vancouver game.
Match appearance fees are common in soccer with popular teams like Brazil able to command huge amounts to play friendlies abroad. But with Canada Soccer noting an increase in support from Sport Canada and Own The Podium in its recently released 2021 annual report, the link between government funding and paying Iran to play offered more fodder for critics of the match.
"Simply put, this match was insulting. I am beyond relieved to hear it was cancelled, as ultimately, it was the right decision," said Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend).
Canada Soccer said it could not comment on its agreement with its Iranian counterpart, citing a confidentiality clause.
"However what we can tell you is no appearance money has been paid to Iran," said Bontis
B'nai Brith Canada, an independent Jewish organization dedicated to combating racism, anti-Semitism and hatred, says it filed this week in Federal Court for an order seeking to prohibit Canadian funds from going to the Iranian Soccer Federation.
The Iran game was to be the first of a two-game Vancouver homestand. The 38th-ranked Canadian men open CONCACAF Nations League A play there against Curaçao on June 9 before closing out the FIFA international window with another CONCACAF Nations League game against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on June 13.
For Canada Soccer, the Iran contest was seen as a rare chance to test the Canadian men against a team outside of their CONCACAF confederation, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.
The Canadians have played just two teams from outside their region since John Herdman took over as coach in January 2018: a 1-0 loss to Iceland in January 2020 and a 1-0 win over New Zealand in March 2018.
Instead the game became a political albatross, tarnishing the Canadian's men's feel-good road to Qatar.
And with the World Cup looming and an already congested soccer schedule, warmup games are hard to squeeze in. After June, there is just one more FIFA international window with Canada likely to play in Europe in September.
The June window opens Monday, with players arriving from their clubs from around the world.
Canada has not played on home soil since qualifying for the World Cup in a 4-0 win over Jamaica at Toronto's BMO Field on March 27. The Canadian men last played at B.C. Place in March 2019 when they beat French Guiana 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying.
The Canadians topped the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with an 8-2-4 record. Their last game was a 1-0 loss in Panama on March 30.
Canada has a 1-2-0 all-time record against Iran, winning the most recent encounter 1-0 in April 2001 in Cairo. Iran posted 1-0 wins in 1997 and 1999 games in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively.
Canada opens World Cup play Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 24 Morocco on Dec. 1.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press