Without proper investment, women's soccer will never attract and retain talent
John Herdman coaching the Canadian men’s national team is about the most surprising possible thing that could have happened to a coach who long seemed destined to move to a bigger job than the Canadian women’s national team.
Herdman’s move across the hall from the world’s fifth-ranked women’s team to the 94th-ranked men’s team in the world – by way of using the third-ranked women’s team in the world as leverage – is more bizarre a development than the coach leaving for any other women’s team job, or simply deciding to take a break after six-plus years in the same role. Through a wider lens, it is another indictment of the state of the women’s game and, concurrently, not Herdman’s fault.
The current state of England’s women’s national team and the FA is a unique case, granted, but this is an English-born, uniquely qualified coach turning away from that long sought-after job (how advanced talks were remains unclear) in favor of a far more curious one in the men’s game.
Herdman spoke openly about the England job in 2013, when rumors swirled about the FA’s interest in him. The U.S. job reputedly would have pulled him away, if it became available, but Herdman’s name never bubbled to the top of that list when Jill Ellis was hired in 2014, a year after England chose Mark Sampson as coach.
Herdman, meanwhile, had parlayed a successful five years in charge of New Zealand’s women’s team into the Canada job. There, he took a broken team which finished last at the 2011 World Cup and made it an Olympic bronze medalist the following year (and again in 2016). The two jobs that always seemed like they could eventually pull
Now, the England job is again open – and has been for some four months – following Sampson’s ignominious exit. Undoubtedly, the fallout of that has led England to this point: Still without a coach, 18 months from the World Cup, and with all three previous reported finalists for the job having now signed new contracts elsewhere. England is among a handful of teams with a realistic shot of winning the 2019 World Cup. Nobody wants the job, as challenging as it may be?
To be clear: Herdman’s choice of his next job is his to make. These are employment choices that you and I have to make as well throughout life, and they are never based on one sole factor. Money? Sure. Prestige? Perhaps. Family? Certainly. Some combination of that fueled Herdman’s decision, one he has every right to make – however strange it may seem to outsiders. The magnitude of this challenge may also have appealed to him (and he was nothing if not a master motivator for a Canadian women’s team which often punched above its weight).
He is taking on the roles of both men’s national team head coach and program director for a program which has been to the World Cup only once (in 1986) and hasn’t even made it to the final round of qualifying since the 1998 cycle. Canada Soccer is well aware of that history of failure as an expected co-hosted home World Cup looms in 2026.
But what’s really interesting at a higher level is the allocation of resources by Canada Soccer, and the larger picture which that fits into. Herdman’s contract is certainly a much sweeter deal than his previous one as coach of the women’s national team, so why wouldn’t Canada Soccer invest that into the women’s team, ranked fifth in the world and 18 months from a World Cup that it has an outside chance of winning? This is the team that won back-to-back Olympic bronze medals. This is the team that, as 2015 World Cup host, rallied the country around soccer like few had seen before.
Why not give Herdman the significant raise to keep him put and push for a World Cup title in 2019? That factors only financial impact, but the more successful women’s national team looks like an afterthought here, left seemingly without any process or search for a new coach. Former assistant Kenneth Heiner-Møller has assumed the role. There really isn’t a list of high-level coaches who would be interested in coaching the Canadian women’s national team ahead at the 2019 World Cup?
Canada’s men’s national team needs changing, but apparently not the kind of change Octavio Zambrano tried to implement in his 10 months at the helm. You could see a line of thinking from Canada Soccer that Herdman could build the men’s pyramid the way he has the women’s, however flawed a strategy it may be to ask someone to do both (ask U.S. Soccer).
And that’s where the conversation all gets uncomfortable – where the women’s game at a micro- and macro-level continues to feel like the testing ground for some bigger, superior stage.
Canada hosted a fine 2015 World Cup after making itself the political battleground for women’s equality, following the decision to play the World Cup on artificial turf for the first time. That saga has been explored enough, but what was clear throughout was that one eye was on a future men’s World Cup. Would the artificial turf cause any true problems in the Women’s World Cup? And would Canada be able to handle this size event, one still significantly smaller than the men’s World Cup it also desires to host?
For all the tangible progress brought in 2017 alone – new agreements for women’s national teams in the U.S., Denmark and Ireland, to name a few; equal pay for Norway’s men’s and women’s teams; protests elsewhere, including South America – women’s soccer, like other industries, is a long way from equality. A recently released report from FIFPro spells out clearly how unprofessional the women’s game still is.
And so we find ourselves in a world where, to oversimplify things, the head-coaching post of an irrelevant men’s national team (on the world’s stage) is potentially seen as an upgrade – and unequivocally viewed by Canada Soccer as worth investing more into – than the fifth-ranked women’s team in the world.
It leads us to a world where, challenging circumstances of the job granted, the third-best team in the world, one with a realistic shot at bringing a World Cup home to England, can’t find a coach.
It leads us to a world where France, perennial underachiever that can’t get out of its own way, hires an unqualified coach who, upon his hiring, admitted to knowing “nothing” about women’s soccer.
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We can dream about the day when a Pep Guardiola type sees value in women’s soccer positions, too, and we can assume with great certainty that he wouldn’t leave Manchester City or any other post to manage the Nicaragua women’s national team, which currently holds the equivalent position (94) of Canada’s men’s team in respective world rankings. Herdman is not Pep, nor Canada Nicaragua, but the point is that there appear to be even fewer jobs than we thought in the women’s game which are truly sought-after destinations. The same is true at the club level, where a perceived lack of professionalism within organizations in even some of the best women’s leagues in the world has turned away high-level coaches.
Women’s soccer lacks incentives and investments across the board. These positions currently lack the prestige and financing to be universally attractive. The Women’s World Cup winner receives $2 million in prize money, compared to $35 million for the men. Similar disparity exists at the club salary level. Even Jill Ellis, who led the U.S. women to the 2015 World Cup title, made $216,407 in base salary at that time, while Jurgen Klinsmann, a protagonist in the U.S. men’s ultimate failure to even qualify for the World Cup, made over $3 million.
I don’t blame John Herdman for making the move he did. I don’t even need to like or dislike the move; I’m not his advisor, nor a fan of either Canadian team with a vested rooting interest. He did a marvelous job in making Canada a better team than it probably thought it truly could be, even if the 2015 World Cup was ultimately a disappointment for the lofty goals set. He has sparked interest in the Canadian men’s team from previously apathetic onlookers; whether or not he can translate success will be an interesting story to follow.
This idea of switching Herdman's role is borderline crazy from Canada Soccer, but it isn’t any one person’s fault. It is built into the fabric of our world for the women’s game to be a distant second, kept at arm’s length. We’re seeing that now as women’s soccer is barely a passing thought in platforms among U.S. Soccer presidential hopefuls. Even at levels the public never sees, some of the most talented people in women's soccer often migrate to the men's game. Why? Investment and career path forward.
That neglect is the real problem, and the disappointing part about this news which, in retrospect, probably shouldn’t really be surprising.