Sports

How Langford became the hub of a Canadian soccer player’s union movement

After nearly two years, the player-led movement is nearing official recognition from the league

By Martin Bauman
December 17, 2021
Sports

How Langford became the hub of a Canadian soccer player’s union movement

After nearly two years, the player-led movement is nearing official recognition from the league

By Martin Bauman
Dec 17, 2021
Professional Footballers Association Canada executive director Dan Kruk (far left) and president Marcel de Jong (far right) meet with Canadian women's national team player Janine Beckie and brother Drew Beckie, of Atletico Ottawa. Photo: Martin Mendizabal (@MartinGM).
Sports

How Langford became the hub of a Canadian soccer player’s union movement

After nearly two years, the player-led movement is nearing official recognition from the league

December 17, 2021
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How Langford became the hub of a Canadian soccer player’s union movement
Professional Footballers Association Canada executive director Dan Kruk (far left) and president Marcel de Jong (far right) meet with Canadian women's national team player Janine Beckie and brother Drew Beckie, of Atletico Ottawa. Photo: Martin Mendizabal (@MartinGM).

This article is based on interviews from the Capital Daily podcast. You can listen and subscribe here or on your podcasting app of choice.

Langford is having a soccer moment. Not only is the sport enjoying an all-time high in Canada-wide interest with the successes of the women’s and men’s national teams, but the Island’s only professional sports club, Pacific FC, just brought home a national championship in the Canadian Premier League.

At the same time, a player-led labour movement that began on Vancouver Island is nearing official recognition from the league—a landmark change, after nearly two years of seeking voluntary acknowledgement.

“There’s a time and place for everything. The time and place is here and now,” said David Clanachan, commissioner of the Canadian Premier League, when discussing the Professional Footballers Association Canada—a first-of-its-kind players’ union that seeks to represent athletes of all genders across the country.

The story of how the players union arrived at this moment is another matter. It involves a ruptured Achilles tendon, two quarantine bubbles, a record-breaking heat dome, and a bin full of white t-shirts—but first, it starts on a practice pitch in Saanich.

The Achilles

Marcel de Jong does not fall easily. Thirty-five years old, a former defender with the Canadian men’s national team, the Victoria resident is used to battling with the world’s best soccer players: Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Müller. So, he didn’t think much of leaping for a header during a pre-season scrimmage at the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence—or, for that matter, of taking a spill to the ground. Only this time, at the dawn of March in 2019, something happened when he tried to get back up.

“I just tried to feel my Achilles, and the Achilles was gone. It rolled all the way up into my calf,” the 17-year veteran recalls.

There is, of course, no good time to rupture one’s Achilles, but de Jong’s timing was especially unfortunate. Less than a month earlier, the Newmarket, Ontario native had been announced as the star signing for Langford-based Pacific FC in the upstart Canadian Premier League. The season opener was a month away. Pundits were touting his arrival as the biggest splash in the league’s short history. And then—snap—gone.

A seed of doubt crept into de Jong’s mind.

“What's gonna happen? Is there anything [for me to be] taken care of? Do I have to worry?” he recalls. 

Then 32 years old, a footballing veteran of Germany’s Bundesliga and the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, de Jong had been used to active players’ associations during his years in Europe’s top-flight leagues—the kinds of organizations that could advocate on behalf of players when it came to contract issues, pensions, health care, and concerns beyond the sport. Only in Canada, there was nothing. It was a brand-new league. Everything was happening from zero.

De Jong talked things over with teammate Issey Nakajima-Farran, a fellow veteran of the global soccer circuit. The two oldest players on Pacific FC—a team full of twenty-somethings—they were close; they had roomed together and spent time on the Canadian national team. When Nakajima-Farran signed with the Langford-based club, he moved into a houseboat. He stayed with de Jong while it underwent repairs.

“From there on, we just decided, ‘Let’s start this project together,’” he says.

The debut

The first year of the Canadian Premier League was an on-field success. Seventeen-thousand fans showed up to watch the first-ever match in league history between Hamilton’s Forge FC and Toronto’s York9 FC on April 27, 2019. The Halifax-based HFX Wanderers FC averaged a near-sellout attendance of 6,061 all season long. The league had also secured a 10-year broadcast deal with MEDIAPRO, one of the world’s largest rights-holders in professional soccer, worth an estimated $200 million.

The numbers were large for Canadian soccer, but far from lucrative. (In 2013, Rogers paid $5.232 billion in a 12-year deal for the National Hockey League’s broadcast rights in Canada.) From the outside, it was hard to gauge the Canadian Premier League’s overall financial health. The league didn’t reveal teams’ operating budgets or average player salaries.

“I don’t know if I ever will,” commissioner David Clanachan told the Canadian Press in 2019.

“To some degree, you’ll never be right. It's going to be too much or too little… We need to focus on what is happening on the pitch,” he told TVO in July 2019.

Canadian Premier League commissioner David Clanachan speaks to assembled media ahead of the 2021 CPL Final. Photo: Canadian Premier League/Carolina Ruada

The on-field product impressed. By the season’s end, league MVP Tristan Borges had played well enough to attract the interest of Belgium’s OH Leuven. Cavalry FC’s Joel Waterman, a sturdy defender, caught the eye of the Montreal Impact.

But there were question marks, too. Players and coaches had raised concerns about the congested nature of the 2019 season schedule. For the month of July, Wanderers head coach Stephen Hart’s side averaged a match every four days while travelling over 18,000 kilometres from Hamilton, to Vancouver Island, to Ottawa, to Toronto, to Edmonton.

“You play seven games… and you just don’t know how to recover between the games—and you can’t prepare,” Hart told reporter Steven Sandor.

The players’ meeting

It was late February 2020 when de Jong and Nakajima-Farran met with what would become the board of directors of the Professional Footballers Association Canada. Joining them on a Zoom call were a handful of players from across the Canadian Premier League, including Marco Carducci, goalkeeper for Cavalry FC; Pacific FC midfielder Jamar Dixon; Kyle Porter, a forward then with York9 FC; and Vancouver-born Ben Fisk, then with Atlético Ottawa. 

“[Marcel and Issey] kind of reached out to me early on, feeling out how I felt about things. I think they were feeling out if I’d be interested in being involved or not… I just thought, when I was [playing] in Spain, when I was in Ireland, having a players’ association was just the norm,” Fisk says.

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On the agenda during that meeting: adopting a set of founding bylaws and electing an executive. The players appointed Dan Kruk, a Vancouver-based labour specialist, as the union’s executive director, and Ottawa-based human rights and labour lawyer Paul Champ as official legal counsel.

Then, they canvassed. According to PFACan, over 90% of Canadian Premier League players voted in favour of the union—“Which is huge. You will never see that anywhere in any business,” de Jong says.

Still, there was one step remaining. The players’ union would need to be formally recognized by the league.

Global shutdowns and pay cuts

Callum Irving, unlike de Jong, has a habit of falling. (Diving, perhaps, is a better word.) Growing up playing under the shade of blue spruces and Japanese maples at Vancouver’s Oak Park, the future Pacific FC goalkeeper would dive and tumble until his jeans ripped through the knee.

“My mom cut all my jeans into jean shorts,” he laughs.

It was something of a family trade for the 28-year-old Irving—his father, Rob, had played goalkeeper for Simon Fraser University. And in February 2020, after a career that led through Kentucky, South Texas, and Ottawa, he was excited to return to his home province. He had inked a deal with Pacific FC to join the club for its second season.

Pacific FC goalkeeper Callum Irving walks off the pitch after his club’s victory over Valour FC on October 16, 2021. Photo: Pacific FC/Sheldon Mack

It took less than three weeks after Irving’s signing for the world to shut down. On March 11, 2020—one month to the day before the CPL’s second season was to begin—the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The league issued a media release the following day.

“We will continue following the guidelines set forth by our public health authorities and government agencies,” the statement read.

Eight days later, the league postponed the season indefinitely. Practices were cancelled. Teams that had just begun training camp were forced to pivot to Zoom calls and individual workouts.

“[I] probably watched every recent Champions League game 10 times,” Surrey-born midfielder Noah Verhoeven, now with York United FC, told me then.

The league faced a problem. In just its second year, it was still fighting for relevance among casual fans. Outside of Halifax, attendances were low. With annual expenses of over $4 million, teams needed the revenue from ticket sales to keep the lights on. And then—like dirt stains on a denim knee—the pandemic muddied everything. In an effort “to keep as many people as possible employed,” the league announced it would defer 25% of players’ wages.

“We thank our dedicated players, coaches and staff for helping us share the weight,” the commissioner announced.

What wasn’t announced then—what wouldn’t be revealed until months later—was that the deferral would become a 25% pay cut. According to PFACan, over half of CPL players were already earning less than $22,000 a year. For some players, making as little as $15,000 a season, that meant earning $11,250 for the entirety of 2020. (The league has claimed, as of 2021, the average player receives $40,000 in compensation, when including performance bonuses and housing and car allowances.) 

Irving is generally talkative, but he gets quiet when reflecting on the wage cuts, calling it a “difficult time.”

“Guys had to make sacrifices... No revenue coming in. I think pretty much everything has been said on that,” he adds.

The Bubble, Part 1

Say this about the Canadian Premier League: It knows how to pivot. 

By July 29, 2020, the league announced it would host the 2020 season as a single-site tournament—much like how the NBA and Major League Soccer resumed play in bubble-style tournaments at Disney World in Florida. The CPL’s second season would take place in Charlottetown, PEI, with all matches played behind closed doors, for a TV-only audience. Teams would stay quarantined at the Delta Hotel next to Peakes Quay, leaving only for their matches at UPEI’s Alumni Field.

The turnaround was quick: the Island Games, as they had been branded, were slated to begin on Aug. 13, 2020. The players themselves only heard of the plans a few weeks prior.

“We had like a month's notice telling us we're going to Prince Edward Island for a tournament [lasting] six, seven, eight weeks. And that was obviously kind of shocking. People need to take care of their personal situations,” de Jong says.

There were other issues.

After the fixture congestion of 2019, the league had set out to create a balanced schedule with longer breaks between matches. But when the Island Games were announced, players noticed a far different schedule than the one initially proposed. In a condensed tournament, teams would play seven matches in three weeks. The four teams that reached the group playoff stage would play an additional three matches in a one-week span.

The scheduling rankled Irving.

“When the players are the ones that are putting their bodies and their health on the line, I think they should have a say in, you know, certain things that affect their health and well-being,” he says.

Then, there was the looming elephant of the players’ union. Since the PFACan’s arrival, the league had declined comment on the matter.

“The reality is if you have a good relationship with your management, there’s no need for a third party to get in between the two of you and create problems where there [aren’t] any problems,” Clanachan had told The Athletic in December 2019.

“If there is a problem, then that’s different. But I would much rather speak for myself and be able to speak to open-minded people than I would have somebody else negotiate for me,” he added.

“[The league] never really took us seriously at the beginning,” de Jong says.

The Bubble, Part 2

The third Canadian Premier League season began much like the second. Instead of a bubble tournament in P.E.I., the league announced it would open with a single-site format in Winnipeg, dubbed The Kickoff. Each club would play its first eight matches at Investors Group Field, with the hopes of returning to clubs’ home markets as the COVID-19 situation improved. For four weeks, players and coaches would quarantine once again. Matches would be televised on OneSoccer.

“We know what it takes, we have the playbook, and we know how to execute flawlessly as we did in 2020,” Clanachan said in a statement.

The season began June 26, 2021—just as a heat dome blanketed Western Canada and the United States. Temperatures reached 47 C in Cache Creek. Nearly 600 people died in British Columbia alone, according to the provincial coroners’ service. In Manitoba, 19 communities tied or broke heat records. The league shifted kickoff times for a number of its games to try to avoid the worst of the heat, but temperatures were still above 30 C.

“I’m pretty sure playing on turf at 35°+ would go down as ‘unstable work environment.’ It’s not entertaining football when we are literally in pain,” Winnipeg defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste tweeted.

It was a testy environment between players and the league. 

Over a year since the players had announced the formation of PFACan, the CPL head office hadn’t changed its tune on the players’ union. The union’s lawyer, Paul Champ, said that after twice approaching the league and asking for voluntary recognition, they were prepared to go to each province’s labour relations board. Clanachan deferred comment on the matter during a pre-season press conference on June 24.

“Today, I’m focusing on celebrating the whole kickoff of our 2021 season. We’ve been focusing on being able to deliver a season so our players can play—and our fans and supporters can get to see games, because they’ve waited, and they’ve been so anxiously awaiting this,” he said.

Adding to the tension was the fact that players claimed, as with 2020, that they were kept in the dark on plans for the season schedule.

“We found out [the schedule] when everybody found out,” says Irving.

The t-shirt incident

Things built to a head on July 21, 2021. Two matches were scheduled that day—first, an afternoon tilt between FC Edmonton and HFX Wanderers FC, followed by a night match between Atlético Ottawa and Pacific FC.

When the players from Edmonton and Halifax emerged from the dressing room tunnel for the national anthem, they unzipped their jackets. Underneath, each wore a white t-shirt emblazoned with “Professional Footballers Association Canada.” Players from Pacific FC and Ottawa followed suit.

Players from FC Edmonton demonstrate in support of players' union recognition ahead of their match against HFX Wanderers FC on July 21, 2021. Photo: OneSoccer

Covering the league as a freelance reporter, I asked about the players’ statement in the post-match Zoom press conference.

“As a squad, we decided it was something we wanted to make known. We think it’s something that’s important, and something that could and should happen in the future,” Ottawa forward Malcolm Shaw said.

Shortly after Shaw’s response, I received a text message from a team representative.

“I’m not allowed to have you ask a question… because of your question about the players’ shirts,” it read. 

The directive had come from the league’s head office.

The future

In the week leading up to the Canadian Premier League final between Pacific FC and Hamilton’s Forge FC, there was plenty of online chatter about the league, but one tweet stood out. On Dec. 1, the league’s official Twitter account posted a message from the commissioner:

“The Canadian Premier League has had discussions with Professional Footballers Association Canada (PFACan). We have agreed to enter into exploratory discussions about a future possible collective bargaining relationship and look forward to more conversation.”

“I’m telling you right now, no issues whatsoever, we’re going to do this,” Clanachan reaffirmed later that week, during a pre-final press conference. He offered the pandemic as the reason the two sides hadn’t met sooner. 

“You had two years. You are literally fighting to breathe. You can’t let distraction in—not that it’s a distraction—but you can’t let anything else inside of your brain and what you can handle [at] that point in time,” he said.

That argument doesn’t hold up with Champ.

“It was our view that the league would benefit very much from having us during this time of COVID—because, you know, there's so many quick decisions they have to make that impact on the players,” he says.

On multiple occasions during the past two weeks, Capital Daily has made efforts to receive further comments from the Canadian Premier League head office; however, despite back-and-forth conversations, the league has not officially replied at this time.

For Irving, the news represents “the first small step forward that needs to be taken.”

“Players want a voice. And they want to be a part of discussions moving forward within the league. There [haven’t] been any kind of crazy demands from the get-go talking about money or this and that; it's been mostly just about feeling heard and feeling valued,” he adds.

As for de Jong, he expects the union will meet with the league in early 2022 before the next season begins.

“We're not here to work against the league, we're here to work with the league,” he says. “And if there's just open conversation, if there's transparency between the league and the players... then it's all fair and all good.”

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