A labor dispute at home forced the Australian women’s national team to cancel a two-game tour of the United States, with matches against the World Champions scheduled in Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama this week. There was the practical matter that the United States Soccer Federation had two high-profile games scheduled for which they had sold about 60,000 tickets, amounting to a few million dollars of sales. Canceling the games would be a severe financial setback to the federation, but also take away the opportunity for American fans in these cities to celebrate the team’s victory this summer.
U.S. Soccer announced on Sept. 10 that Australia was not coming but the games were not canceled. Four hours later, Haiti was announced as the replacement team. Interestingly, Haiti regularly trains for half of the year in South Bend, Ind., about three hours from Detroit. Haitian women’s national team head coach Shek Borkowski had actually planned to be in Detroit the week of the match to play a closed-door scrimmage against Australia, being asked by Football Federation Australia a few weeks before. Borkowski was tremendously excited for the opportunity to play the world champions twice. “We don’t expect to win but it will help our team develop,” he said.
Neither the Haitian federation nor U.S. Soccer officials would confirm the financial arrangements but Borkowski said simply, when asked on multiple occasions: “The only way we can learn is playing against the best in the world; for us it’s a tremendous opportunity. We’re here, we’re pleased and have no complaints.”
After finishing sixth out of eight sides in last fall’s Gold Cup for Women’s World Cup qualification – including a 6-0 defeat to the U.S. – Borkowski has focused on developing his U-20 side, which will play in a Caribbean Football Union U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament in a few weeks, when they host an eight-team event in which three teams advance to Honduras for the CONCACAF U-20 WWC qualification regional finals. Current qualifiers for the CONCACAF finals are Canada, Mexico, Panama, the U.S. and the host nation, along with the top three CFU teams. The next U-20 Women’s World Cup is scheduled to be held in Papua New Guinea in the fall of 2016.
After the first game in Detroit, in which the U.S. defeated Haiti, 5-0 – with Carli Lloyd scoring a hat trick and forward Crystal Dunn adding a late goal and two assists in front of a crowd of 34,538 – Borkowski said: “We have to keep it in perspective. They are World Champions, the reigning Olympic Champions, and arguably the best team in women’s football ever. For us, we played two 16-year-olds, one 17-year-old and six 18-year-olds, which is the core of our U-20 team…. For many of them, it was their first time out of Haiti, first time playing in front of this crowd, first time playing world champions. We could be at our best and we’re still going to lose. They scored five goals against Japan in the [World Cup] final and beat Costa Rica by 8-0 and 7-2 [last month], so 5-0 is respectable score by our standards….To make progress we have to play teams that are better than us.”
Borkowski explained that after last fall’s World Cup qualifying that the team – which he has been in charge of for four years – had to go through a rebuilding cycle for the next Women’s World Cup qualification campaign in 2018/2019. This is normal for any national team, but there are societal reasons at home that add a different element to the equation.
“For us, every four years, we lose our players who turn 24 or 25 because there is no money for them and there is enormous pressure from their families to start making a living, just as we get them to the point that the team is competitive,” Borkwoski said. He continued: “Parents say to them: ‘Why are you wasting your time [with football]? You need to help raise your sisters, raise your brothers or make money.’ There is a social pressure on the players and not an acceptance of [women’s] football like there is in the United States….Every four years, we start with a new group of young players and try to keep them involved in the game.”
Borkowski’s faith in his youngsters was shown when he took the U-20 side to Caribbean Zone 2016 Olympic Game qualifying recently in Puerto Rico against senior national selections, in order to give them experience. With only two sides qualifying for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics out of CONCACAF [most likely the U.S. and Canada], he admitted that Haiti had no chance to reach the Olympic finals, but still the team did well. Haiti defeated Aruba, 14-0 and Grenada, 13-0, while a narrow 3-2 defeat to Puerto Rico kept them out of the next round of qualifiers.
Haitian federation president Yves Jean-Bart took a break from monitoring messages from home after the game to say that he felt that the series against the U.S was “a huge opportunity for the team, the coaching staff and the federation. They measured themselves against the biggest soccer team in the world.”
Another benefit for Haiti being asked to play the Americans was the chance to increase their profile in order to recruit Haitian diaspora in North America and Europe to join the side. Borkwoski said that in the entire country, there are only about 250 women’s players, so finding quality diaspora is part of his long-term strategy. In Detroit, he gave first international caps to two U.S. high school players with Haitian heritage. Forward Sabine Chandler, a senior at Dublin, Ohio’s Jerome High School, played the entire second half at forward and was industrious in a difficult situation in which the U.S. dominated ball position. She called it “a blessing” to receive her first cap at any level. Borkowski heard about her this summer but had not been able to have her in for training; he ended up bringing her up for the game and feels that she is a nice addition to the squad. Midfielder Darline Radamaker from Utica Ford High school in suburban Detroit was born in Haiti but adopted by a Michigan family when she was little and had many friends in the stands. Borkowski said that she got to play against players she had idolized while watching the World Cup.
Borkowski said that high-profile matches like the two against the Americans help them to show that women’s football deserves more funding at home.
“We need investment from our own federation and our government, but there is not much return on the money in Haiti by investing in the women’s game.” He said. “They have to be pragmatic and invest and make money in men’s football. It’s not a criticism of our federation; it’s a statement of fact. The U.S. is where they are today because of 35-40 years of people making investments. We have to follow their example and do it on our own scale at a lower level. We need small successes so they will invest a little more.”
Haiti has some players abroad. Shauna Hudson, a former University of Southern California/Cal State Northridge and USL W-League defender, is now playing in Japan’s Nadeshiko II (Second Division) with 1 FC Kibikokusaidaigaku Charme, while midfielders Samantha Brand (ex-University of San Francisco/Iceland/Bay Area Breeze of WPSL) and Lindsay Zullo–Midfielder (ex-Flagler College) are playing in Sweden’s Elitettan League (Second Tier). Borkowski can’t afford to bring them in other than for a qualifying tournament final because of the expense.
The one remaining question was whether the fans in Detroit—all 34,538, the largest crowd to ever see a soccer game in Ford Field, the home of the NFL Detroit Lions – cared that Haiti played rather than Australia? A number of fans said that they were there to see the Americans. One group of 30-40-year-old women’s players from nearby Toledo, Ohio, said at halftime: “It’s so cool to see the World Champions.” Another added that it was “her first professional soccer game ever, but she would be back.” So, all in all, credit to U.S. Soccer for stepping in and implementing Plan B on short notice and putting on a fun and entertaining victory tour match for the fans. Haiti deserves credit for their willingness to come on short notice and the positive attitude that everyone associated with the team showed. Credit the fans for making it a special evening in the state of Michigan. The tour resumes Sunday in Birmingham, Ala.
Regarding the Matildas, the dispute is over compensation amounts to the Matildas’ full-time players by Football Federation Australia (FFA). The Matildas were represented by the Professional Players Association (PFA), who were also in dispute with the FFA regarding the men’s professional A-League – also under the FFA’s charge–which has seen collective bargaining agreement talks stalled after six months. The PFA proposed an annual salary compensation of AU$40,000 (US$29,000) for 14 Tier One women national team players, with 6 Tier Two players earning AU$33,000 (US$24,000). The FFA felt that these salaries were unaffordable and countered with an offer for a 10percent increase a year for four years, which would result in an increase from AU$21,000 (US$15,000) to AU$23,000 (US$16,500) per player. The previous CBA was developed assuming that the women were semi-professionals, which was the case at the time. However, for the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the Matildas had a six-month preparation program with no contract terms adjustment, so they were not compensated for having to give up employment, family time and other opportunities.
A complicating element for the Matildas’ is that their negotiations are bundled with the discussions for an A-League (men’s professional league), which again the FFA finds untenable. PPF Chief executive David Gallop said: “The extraordinary demands that the PFA have made in relation to the A-League salary cap has found the Matildas caught up in something they shouldn’t be caught up in….It’s sad that the Matildas have been dragged into a dispute that’s primarily about the A-League.”
These negotiations have no impact on the semi-professional Westfield W-League, which was launched to help develop the national women’s teams’ program by providing the coaches a more structured environment to scout players, and to give those players a structured training environment that they can improve in. The caliber of W-League play has increased over the years and is a target for off-season players in North America and Europe. Its eighth season will start as scheduled in mid-October and run through January, with the Grand Final on the 31st.
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