It wasn't until long after midnight on Aug. 7, 2021, that the Canadian women's Olympic football team could turn to face the lofted Canadian flag, gold medals hanging around their necks, and begin to sing "O Canada." From back-to-back semifinals heartbreak in 2012 and 2016, the North American team had finally won a major women's football tournament.
Despite the Olympics taking place in empty stadia across Japan over the summer of 2021, rather than the full venues of the 2015 Women's World Cup that Canada had hosted, the joy in the sticky Yokohama night air was mixed with hope. Canada had been forced to go on their Olympic journey alone, their fans left at home because of the ongoing pandemic and strict entry requirements for the host nation. Yet again the team stood on the precipice: women's football in Canada finally had a spark that could finally be ignited with their success.
Fast forward 18 months and the team, far from being celebrated by Canada Soccer, have instead seen more of their budgets slashed, with the federation claiming it doesn't have the revenue to support all parts of the game. It's a claim that the men's team, via their players' association, has taken the federation to task over given that the numbers seemingly don't add up.
Worse still, former Canadian international Kaylyn Kyle has claimed that Canada Soccer and the federation's commercial partner, Canadian Soccer Business, have turned away potential investors in the women's team, highlighting the general apathy seen across the sport for decades.
It would be easy enough for those on the outside to simply say that the women's team are demanding too much in asking for equity with the men's team; after all, Canada isn't a football-rich country. Yet the players are a long way from demanding the eye-watering sums seen in the men's game: one of the first concerns raised by the players is that they simply haven't been paid a cent by Canada Soccer for the entirety of 2022.
Initially threatening strike action ahead of the SheBelieves Cup two weeks ago, the team were under threat of legal action from Canada Soccer and left with little choice but to report to camp, doing so under protest. Across their three outings at the SheBelieves Cup, the emotional and mental toll on the players amid the ongoing feud was clear.
As Christine Sinclair said to the media after Canada's loss to the USA in their first game, "This game leading into it could have gone two ways. Either we're fighting for everything, we come out on fire or we come out flat. You saw those first 10-15 minutes, we came out flat. We looked like a team that was tired, a team that was mentally exhausted."
With Canada Soccer and the players at an impasse, there is again the threat of strike action from the players for their April friendlies, as well as the likelihood of political intervention with the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage -- a committee in the Canadian House of Commons -- reportedly getting involved with the dispute. The president of Canada's federation, Nick Bontis, resigned Monday, writing that he acknowledged "this moment requires change" -- but Bontis' exit won't fix all the players' problems. After all, the contract central to much of the ongoing dispute was spearheaded by Bontis' predecessor, Steve Reed, in 2019. (Before that, Canada Soccer was led by Victor Montagliani, who is now the head of CONCACAF.)
This friction between the Canadian players and their federation doesn't exist within a vacuum, of course -- rather, it speaks to the ongoing culture of neglect and indifference in women's sport, with federations routinely doing the bare minimum to keep their women's programmes going. But even teams run on a shoestring budget have reason to be thankful if they're fortunate enough to play under an empathetic and caring coach -- after all, those players are the lucky ones, as countless elite national teams around the world, international and domestic, are forced to operate under draconian leadership.
In the past week, we've seen France captain Wendie Renard speak out about the current structures in place in the French national team and why, after 142 appearances for her country, she can't continue. Paris Saint-Germain attackers Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani issued similar statements the same day before two more French internationals, defenders Perle Morroni and Griedge Mbock, joined their compatriots in calling for change.
It is clear, as it has been for a long time, that Les Bleues' coach Corinne Diacre is not an empathetic coach, but an alienating one, which has led to an unhappy culture in national team camps. Damningly, Renard spoke of needing to protect her own mental health in stepping back from her national team, showing just how deep the discord is.
With France arguably underperforming not just at their home World Cup in 2019, but at the 2022 Euros too -- with Diacre at the helm for both -- there have long been questions around the coach and her methodology, which has left multiple players out in the cold without good reason. What we do know, however, is that for many years, the longtime France Football Federation president Noel Le Graet was one of Diacre's biggest supporters, and he stood by her even as discord within the team spilled into public view.
Now with Le Graet resigning following multiple scandals, Diacre's position seems to be far less tenable, and reports suggest she might finally, after years of operating with impunity, be forced to resign. But head south, and you'll find a similarly toxic situation ongoing in Spain between RFEF and the women's national team players.
Routinely touted as a team likely to go far in tournaments, Spain (like France) have consistently failed to impress under coach Jorge Vilda and, after another disappointing tournament last summer at the Euros, the straw finally broke for 15 senior players. All of them sent the same statement to the RFEF saying they would not be able to continue if the situation didn't change.
The complaints from the players in Spain are varied: in addition to citing their own emotional struggles under an authoritarian coach, they referred to their physical well-being, with many concerned about being overloaded and repeatedly suffering injuries. But most speak of a coach who is simply not performing at the basics of his job, with the coaching and management around the team a longstanding problem for a nation that repeatedly fails to show up at tournaments.
Sophie Lawson reacts to the news that Wendie Renard, Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani will not represent France at the Women's World Cup.
Just like with Diacre in France, Vilda is well protected in Spain -- he is effectively his own boss and the only person able to fire him (aside from himself) is RFEF president Luis Rubiales, who has wholeheartedly backed his friend.
In the wake of the Renard news, the FFF put out a short statement talking about how no one individual was above the national team. It echoed the Spanish response to "Las 15" -- as those who spoke out have colloquially become known -- and Vilda's remarks that he would call up a team of underage players.
In both cases, it seemed as though there is always one individual who is above the national team: the coach.
Although deeply disheartening, there is at this point little surprise that these types of battles are still being fought in women's football, and it doesn't even seem to register that these are three of the teams currently ranked in the world's top 10 by FIFA. But it is stark that players are speaking out now -- with the World Cup looming in just five months, those brave enough to rock the boat are well aware of what they're putting on the line.
As we've seen time and again, players have routinely been "punished" by their coaches and federations after speaking out, be it Amandine Henry, the French striker and captain who was unceremoniously dropped by Diacre, or Argentina forward Estefania Banini, a star who was kept away from the national team for years after speaking out against former coach Carlos Borrello. Or how about Mexican goal-getter Charlyn Corral, a key voice in ousting former coach Leonardo Cuéllar, or the majority of the Spain team who spoke out about the abusive methods of Vilda's predecessor, Ignacio Quereda?
There is more money flowing through parts of the game these days, and more players are able to call themselves professionals, which means they're therefore less dependent on any salary collected from representing their national teams -- but there is no question that being able to pull on jerseys from their respective countries remains one of the highest honours for women footballers.
In calling for change, these players know what they're putting on the line. They know that instead of promoting positive changes, they are just as likely to face retribution, like the thinly veiled threats of a multiyear expulsion from the RFEF made after receiving (and leaking) statements from "Las 15."
What we're seeing across the world is players speaking out to enact positive change in the sport despite the risks -- and it's not just in Spain, France and Canada, but in the long-term unrest in Chile over the poor treatment of the women's team, or the recent criticism of how the Japanese federation have kept their women's football team on the backburner, to name just a few. As Chelsea boss Emma Hayes said on Sunday afternoon: "Federations have got to do better to support the women's game because clearly we're not getting it right globally."
With more eyes on the sport than ever before and increased interest from fans and investors, these recent testimonies should be the catalyst to strengthen the sport around the world and address the systemic and wanton failings from those in positions of power. As we head into a Women's World Cup that promises to be the most watched in the history of the sport, the worry for so many is that the situation is regressing, with decision-makers still doing what benefits them rather than the sport as a whole.
"What I know is, we've all got to do better," Hayes continued on Sunday. "It's sad to hear, but it's one which just serves as a reminder of just how much work we've still got to do."