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Decked out in a salmon-coloured sports jacket, Dr. Nick Bontis worked the room on the rooftop pool at a luxury hotel in Doha, Qatar this past November.
The former president of Canada Soccer was on top of the world as the national governing body hosted a lavish event on the eve of the country’s first game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
It was the first time in 36 years Canada had qualified for a men’s World Cup and Bontis wanted to celebrate it with fans and sponsors alike on a gorgeous evening overlooking the Doha skyline. It proved to be a great night and the highlight of his tenure.
Just over four months later, Bontis stepped down from his post amid a labour dispute with the women’s national team leading into the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“Today, I have submitted my resignation, effective immediately, to Canada Soccer’s Board of Directors,” Bontis said in statement on Monday. “I want to thank the entire membership, our players, our sponsors and every Canadian soccer fan who continues to support the growth of soccer in our country.
“Canada Soccer and both of our National Team Programs have the real potential to sign a historic collective bargaining agreement. Once signed, it will be a landmark deal that will set our nation apart from virtually every other FIFA Member Association. While I have been one of the biggest proponents of equalizing the competitive performance environment for our Women’s National Team, I will unfortunately not be leading this organization when it happens. I acknowledge that this moment requires change.”
Change is what leaders of the individual provincial soccer associations across the country asked in a letter presented at a board meeting Monday.
Bontis was elected Canada Soccer president in November 2020 replacing Steven Reed. He took over at a turbulent time as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down leagues across the country and drastically reduced revenues for all soccer associations.
A former player, Bontis did help steer the Canada Soccer ship back on course through Concacaf World Cup qualifying for the men and the Olympic tournament for the women.
But he was unable to hold it all together when players were looking to reap the benefits of their success.
“Serving as a volunteer for this organization, and witnessing the tremendous achievements we’ve been able to accomplish together, has been some of the proudest moments of my life,” Bontis said. “Olympic success for our Women’s National Team. Genuine diversity on our Board of Directors, including our first ever female vice president. Our first Men’s FIFA World Cup goal at Qatar 2022. Winning the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup at home.
“I know in my heart that there is more to come. I am and always will be a passionate fan of Canadian soccer and our players. We are in the midst of some of the most exciting times in our nation’s soccer history. I look forward to continuing to support our country, its players and our quest for greatness.”
The dispute with the women’s program garnered international attention and made the entire association look bad globally.
There was a similar dispute under the watch of Bontis and general secretary Earl Cochrane this past summer with the men’s national team, leading to a boycott of an exhibition game against Panama in Vancouver.
The women also threatened to boycott the recent SheBelieves Cup if their demands of equal pay were not met. Canada Soccer clapped back, threatening litigation against a group of players who did not have the financial means to fight back.
What should be a historic time for soccer in Canada with the women winning Olympic gold, the men qualifying for the World Cup and the country getting set to co-host the next one, has turned into a public relations nightmare for Canada Soccer.
The men’s national team, who resolved its dispute over prize money earned by qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, asked Canada’s sports minister Pascale St-Onge to remove Canada Soccer leadership if it was not willing to respond to players’ demands.
This is a slippery slope as FIFA does not look favourably on governments interfering with national soccer associations. Canada Soccer could be sanctioned if the federal government digs too deep into the workings of the association and gets too involved in making changes.
As unlikely as it is to happen, Canada could be kicked out of the Women’s World Cup if FIFA deems there was significant government interference to warrant such a sanction.
Bontis took the fall in an effort to dampen the flames, but the dispute still lingers as does the mistrust by the player towards the entire association.
Whoever steps into the hot seat needs to mend a lot of fences and may have to revisit the deal signed with Canada Soccer Business, which seems to be at the heart of the dispute with the national teams.
Canada Soccer Business, a private company, founded by Canadian Premier League team owners, entered a multi-year sponsorship and broadcast agreement with Canada Soccer. Players are demanding to see details of that agreement.
Until those books are open, however, it likely won’t matter who is sitting in the chair now left vacant by Bontis.
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest