How Owen Hargreaves Set Canada Soccer Back 20 Years
Updated: Jun 4, 2022
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While many people say that Alphonso Davies is Canada's first world-class, internationally recognized men's soccer player, that's not quite true. Just over two decades ago, another young 20-year-old from Alberta had also been making a name for himself with FC Bayern Munich and was catching the eye of a number of football associations around the world. Eligible to play for his birth country of Canada and the birth countries of his father (England) and mother (Wales), Owen Hargreaves was at a crossroads with regards to his international career. Despite numerous pleas by Soccer Canada to have Hargreaves join the CanMNT, he ultimately chose to play for England in 2001, a country he had never lived or played football in prior to joining and had also been courting him aggressively. That decision may have led to 20 years of soccer futility for Canada.
Point 1 - Can one man's decision really affect an entire country's football program? Yeah, it can.
With Hargreaves choosing to play for England, it set off a raft of criticism both in Canada and in England. Canadian soccer fans were livid that a kid from Calgary, born and raised until the age of 16 before going overseas to join Bayern's youth academy, would show no patriotism to the country that gave him his start and who very possibly could have put them over the top in getting Canada to another World Cup. In England, the criticism was no less severe. With so much talent coming out of England, why would the national team cap-tie a strange 20-year-old kid who spoke German, spoke English with that strange Canadian accent and was the first England national team player to have never lived in the country. After a few appearances with the team, they soon found out why - Hargreaves was an exception midfield talent. While not having his presence in a Canadian side hurts the team, more substantially, his choosing England over Canada hurt the Canadian soccer program. Other high level dual-national players started to follow his lead and began abandoning Canada - most notable were Jonathan de Guzman (Netherlands) and Asmir Begovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), while striker Tomasz Radzinski, who was tied to Canada, started ignoring call ups for national duty on a perceived sinking ship to focus on his burgeoning club career. Did these players make the right decision? On the surface, it did as Hargreaves, de Guzman and Begovic were all able to play in World Cups, while Canada's team was left at home. Meanwhile, Radzinksi was a solid striker making good money in the English Premier League with Everton and Fulham before deciding to make himself available for call ups again when his career was waning.
Point 2 - How good would Canada's team been had Hargreaves played for them? Would the team going after qualification to the 2002 World Cup been able to do it with a 21 year-old and already well-established Hargreaves?
It's hard to say. They had a very good core group of players who won the 2000 Gold Cup but that did not translate well the following year when they placed third in their CONCACAF World Cup qualifying group and did not make the final round of CONCACAF qualifying known as "The Hex". They were stuck in CONCACAF's group of death at the time - Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico and Panama. "Trinny" were in their golden generation lead by star Premier League striker Dwight Yorke. Mexico was Mexico and Panama was starting to emerge as a up-and-coming contender. Canada ultimately finished third in the group behind table toppers Trinidad and second-place finishers Mexico. It would have been hard to see them get past Trinidad and Mexico, but if you look more closely, Trinidad completely fell apart in The Hex and finished last. With a better Canadian team putting pressure on them, they might have fallen earlier at the group stage. As the World Cup was starting to make it into Canadians' consciousness and increasing ex-pat fans cheering the teams of their homeland, making that 2002 World Cup would have brought much needed money into the Canada Soccer program not to mention prestige, awareness, passion and pride. Safe to say Canada's program would be even farther ahead than it currently is. It's hard to fault Hargreaves for making the decision that he did - there is speculation it was partly fueled when he was rejected for Canada's U-16 team where coaches felt he wasn't physical enough yet to join the team. Soon afterwards, he made the jump to Bayern's academy and the rest is history. Now a football pundit for BT Sport in England (and sporting a weird hybrid English/Canadian accent), Hargreaves has covered Davies' Champions League games. When Bayern won Champions League in 2020, Hargreaves seemed genuinely proud of his fellow Canadian and Albertan pointing out to his English host that Davies grew up in Edmonton just a couple of hours from where he grew up in Calgary.
Point 3 - Can one man's decision really affect an entire country's football program? Yeah, it can. Alphonso Davies' decision to play for Canada has had a tremendous impact to the Canadian program.
Similar to Hargreaves decision not to play for Canada - it's not just Davies' presence and skillful play on the pitch that is a benefit but also the momentum it gives Canada in convincing top players to join them. If one of the world's best players is willing and so passionate to play for Canada, others will want to give their all to Canada as well. Alphonso Davies' decision has erased 20 years of futility and may have paved the way for at least 20 more years of soccer success in Canada.