John Herdman: the mastermind who has led Canada to the men’s and women’s World Cups | Canada

John Herdman stands in front of a yellow conference room wall, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, off to the side of a projector screen. It displays a quote from Sun Tzu in one corner and a dramatic description of a wildfire along the bottom. He leans into the latter.

“It gains a terrifying momentum. That’s what it gains – a terrifying momentum. This red shirt, this team,” the Canada manager tells his players. “It consumes everything in its path: Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Aruba, Suriname … and then you’ll be ready. What a fucking journey.”

If the identities of the four teams in that path somewhat detract from the speech, they really shouldn’t. This is the world that Canada’s men’s national team were operating in just a year and a half ago. Next week Herdman, an Englishman who has become a hero in Canada, will send his team out to face Belgium in the country’s first men’s World Cup match for nearly four decades.

The speech is one of the first stirring moments from WeCAN, a behind-the-scenes series charting Canada’s rollicking run through Concacaf qualifying en route to Qatar. There are plenty more. But in truth, this is all merely part of the journey.

Just one Canadian player was born before Mexico 86, the last time the country played on the game’s grandest stage – indomitable skipper Atiba Hutchinson who turns 40 in February. Much is rightly made of the rawness and inexperience of the team he captains. But Herdman, the 47-year-old former teacher from Durham, does not lack for experience. Qatar, remarkably, will be the fourth senior World Cup of a management career that started in earnest 16 years ago.

Herdman talks about history as something to be torn up or rewritten, to be challenged or made and remade. When asked last week what it meant to him to be the first manager ever to take a team to a men’s and women’s World Cup, he spoke of how pivotal it is to be “practicing what I preach”.

The preaching is, and appears to have always been, the key part of Herdman’s practice. Spend time with any of those who he’s brought with him on his journey from skills camps in northern England and doubters at the Sunderland Academy to grassroots roles in New Zealand that turned to national team jobs there and in Canada, and the talk always comes back to the talk. Herdman is a master of motivation.

“John is built for these kind of tournaments,” says Melissa Tancredi, the former Canadian stalwart who played under Herdman at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. “He’s been through it all. He’s been through one at home [in Canada] when we all felt that pressure so I don’t think that there’s any inexperience with John.

“This man has something that most managers don’t and that’s his ability to actually connect with players and get the absolute best out of them. He’s a mastermind. I’ve never had, or heard of, a coach who is able to connect with players like he does. He’s an absolute beauty in terms of a motivator. He has that ability to calm the situation or bring it to where he needs to bring it, he’s a calibrator. You don’t really learn that, it’s something you’re innately given.”

While Herdman has undoubtedly grown as a tactician during his years in the international game, Tancredi’s argument that the psychological and cultural skills were a feature from the jump is backed up by those who were there at the start.

Wendi Henderson was long since retired from the New Zealand national team and was feeling her way back into club football, initially for fun, in 2006 when someone approached her on the sidelines in Wellington.

“It was John Herdman. He said he’d just been appointed as Football Ferns manager and asked: ‘Where are you at?’” Henderson says. “I started laughing. ‘Where am I at? I’m 35 and retired three years ago!’”

John Herdman celebrates with his players at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada
John Herdman celebrates with his players at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. Photograph: Dan Riedlhuber/EPA

Henderson would soon be on a plane to China for a two-match tour, Herdman handing her the captain’s armband for both. She’d retired on 48 caps but now rang up her half century as a new era dawned under a manager four years her junior.

“He and I used to laugh about the age difference,” adds Henderson. “But he had a way of really connecting with people and drawing them in to the journey. He has done that with every team he has coached and you can see it. You can see the goosebumps. It instantly takes me back to those moments, making us want to die for each other and die for our country.”

Henderson led the line at Herdman’s first World Cup, the 2007 women’s edition where he set up his side to contain their opponents. By the time the 2011 tournament rolled around, the journey had progressed and Henderson watched a more expansive Ferns side. Herdman’s motivational skillset was being sharpened too. Defender Kirsty Hill, on the 2011 team, shared with Herdman a Maori saying that he has often come back to: “You have to touch someone’s heart before you can take them by the hand.”

New Zealand had touched the Herdman family. His son Jay now represents their U-19s. But there was a new calling. Canadian hearts were barely beating when Herdman arrived in the country in 2011. Canada had been the worst performer at that year’s Women’s World Cup.

“We were completely broken,” recalls retired defender Emily Zurrer, who was also part of that 2015 squad. “Some of us were thinking about hanging up our boots and here’s this guy talking about being on a podium and seeing our flag rise … and very quickly he instilled that belief in us. It wasn’t this false sense of belief, it was: ‘Holy shit we can actually do something here with this guy leading our way’. He’s not just talk, he’s the hardest working person I’ve met in my life.”

Herdman guided the women to back-to-back Olympic bronzes before they went two better at Tokyo last year. It’s therefore understandably hard to find dissenting voices, anyone left unmotivated by all the talk. Would his earnestness have such a runway in the more cynical confines of his homeland? We may one day find out. Herdman is a demanding leader but surrounds himself with a staff who know the drill. One minor criticism is that he perhaps wants to be liked too much and delays hard conversations. His jump from the women to the men in 2018 was hugely controversial and Herdman has admitted regret about how it was handled, particularly a hurried apology to veteran captain Christine Sinclair.

With Croatia and Morocco alongside Belgium, Group F in Qatar looks daunting. But then so did getting there. What’s remarkable is that the same powers of persuasion and motivation that brought Henderson, a city worker in her mid-30s, back to a World Cup in 2007 was just as effective in 2021 in convincing someone like Alphonso Davies, a $100,000-a-week Champions League winner barely out of his teens, that he could guide Canada there too.

Tancredi, Zurrer and Henderson give knowing smiles when they hear Davies say he’d “run through a brick wall” for Herdman. The coach is doing it again.

And it’s a lot more than Sun Tzu quotes. Before a ball had been kicked in qualifying Herdman arranged mocked-up Canadian front pages celebrating World Cup qualification and passed them to the players. History there to be written. On a Zoom call recently from his home office, Herdman had a freshly hung poster from Mexico 86, where Canada played three, lost three and didn’t score a goal. History there to be remade. Nothing would surprise his former charges.

“John works best with his back against the wall,” says Tancredi, a sentiment Zurrer echoed. “He loves to be the underdog, it’s where he thrives. That’s where he has shown with our team and with this men’s team: the more you doubt him, the more work he’s going to put in to prove you wrong.”

What a journey.

Fifa backs executives after failure to tell players about sexually abusive coach | Fifa

Fifa has backed senior officials within its organization after a failure to tell players and the public the real reason why now-convicted sex offender and former national team coach Bob Birada left Canada Soccer in 2008.

The officials – Victor Montagliani, the president of Concacaf and a Fifa vice-president, and Peter Montopoli, the chief operating officer for Canada for the 2026 World Cup – were senior Canada Soccer officials with central roles in Birarda’s exit from his job as Canada’s U-20 women’s national team coach after he was found to have acted inappropriately with his own players.

Fifa’s support for its officials comes as women’s soccer legend and Canada Sports Hall of Famer Andrea Neil says “real leadership” from administrators cannot exist without accountability.

“[Montopoli and Montagliani] may not be in Canada Soccer’s jurisdiction [at present] but Canada Soccer could still take a stance on what happened,” Neil said. “They could still acknowledge that the leaders of the past chose to protect their self-interest and reputation and that of Bob Birarda, over the safety and well-being of their players. Not just the players that he was directly influencing at the time but the ones Birarda went on to coach afterwards.”

In early 2022, Birarda pleaded guilty in a Vancouver court to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching that occurred during his coaching career. On Wednesday he was sentenced to 16 months in jail and eight months under conditions including house arrest. In 2008, complaints were made by members of the Canadian women’s U-20 team and Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team about Birarda’s behavior. Birarda held head coach roles with the teams.

Following an internal investigation into the allegations – which, according to one former Canada Soccer executive, concluded that Birarda had sent unwelcome texts with sexual overtones to some of his players – the organization announced the coach’s departure in 2008. Canada Soccer said his exit was by a “mutual parting of ways” and, in a public statement, wished him well for the future. Despite the allegations against him Birarda continued to coach girls and young women in the community for over a decade after his departure from Canada Soccer.

The roles of Montagliani as an executive committee member with responsibility for national teams and Montopoli as Canada Soccer General Secretary in Birarda’s exit were laid out in the McLaren Report, a 125-page investigation by legal firm McLaren Global Sports Solutions published in July 2022. The report confirmed earlier reporting by the Guardian that found Canada Soccer did not follow its own policies about harassment and abuse when Birarda’s behavior became known.

The report revealed there was “no acknowledgment of Birarda’s harassment … and no mention of any decision to terminate Birarda” in scripted notes given to Montagliani for a meeting with players that Birada was leaving the national program prior to the Canadian team taking part in the 2008 U-20 World Cup. McLaren said Birarda’s departure “was characterized [by Canada Soccer] as ‘a mutual decision to part ways’ in scripted comments and generic statements issued to the general public.”

According to McLaren investigators, Montopoli failed as recently as 2021 – just weeks before leaving Canada Soccer to take up a top role with the 2026 World Cup – to accurately describe to Fifa’s Ethics Committee how Canada Soccer handled Birarda’s exit. Documents seen by investigators showed that Montopoli wrote to the Ethics Committee saying that “following proper guidance from legal counsel, [we] informed the news media and the public of the termination of Mr Birarda.”

McLaren, however, reported Montopoli “mischaracterized Birarda’s departure from [Canada Soccer] which was communicated as a ‘mutual parting of ways’ – not a termination – according to the joint media statement at the time [of Birarda’s departure]. Players were frustrated and confused as to how Birarda’s departure was communicated as indicated.”

The McLaren report added: “Canada Soccer misled players and obfuscated the true reason for his departure… Moreover, [Canada Soccer’s] failure to terminate Birarda and impose disciplinary sanctions afforded him the opportunity to continue coaching, putting other players at potential risk.”

The McLaren report said that Canada Soccer’s strategy for inaccurately announcing the reasons for Birarda’s departure to players and the public was led, according to one unnamed executive, by legal advice “to protect the organization”.

According to the report, while being fully aware of Birarda’s behavior, Montagliani addressed players to announce Birarda was to be replaced as coach shortly before the 2008 U-20 women’s World Cup. The report says Montagliani was provided with scripted remarks announcing the coach’s departure to the players that included the statement: “Many of you are aware of some of the challenges that Mr Birarda has been dealing with, including his health and limited time for his own personal obligations. Accordingly, and effective immediately, Mr Birarda will no longer be the Head Coach of Women’s U-20 National Team. It is a mutual decision to part ways…”

In a statement to the Vancouver Sun in October 2008, Canada Soccer said that “[Birarda’s] departure was a mutual decision which the association and Mr Birarda agreed was in the best interest of both parties.” As the McLaren report notes: “This statement did not acknowledge any of the harassment allegations as the reason for Birarda’s dismissal.” This meant the public remained unaware of the allegations against Birarda.

Concacaf, of which Montagliani is currently president, provided a written statement to the Guardian. Concacaf said Montagliani, a former Canada Soccer executive and vice-president for national teams “does not recall ever receiving any speaking notes” and that the McLaren report “does not state that he said them.” The Concacaf statement added that “[Montagliani] was asked by the President of [Canada Soccer] to attend that meeting on behalf of the federation and the executive committee, of which he was one of eight members, because the players were based at a training camp in his home city, Vancouver.”

Asked to clarify why Montagliani did not disclose the correct reasons for Birarda’s departure and why that departure was framed as “mutual agreement”, the spokesperson said, “the subsequent handling of Mr Birarda’s departure, including the communications, was led by Canada Soccer’s legal counsel.”

Fifa did not respond to questions about processes in place for Montopoli misrepresenting an event to its Ethics Committee. Nor did Fifa answer questions requesting whether the organization had performed due diligence in hiring Montopoli for his role with the 2026 World Cup.

In an email to the Guardian, a Fifa spokesman defended Montagliani and Montopoli’s appearance in the McLaren Report: “It is our understanding from the report that, as one member of an eight strong executive committee, upon being made aware of allegations of inappropriate text messages between coach (Mr Birarda) and players, Mr Montagliani and the other committee members voted to suspend the coach, appoint an independent lawyer to investigate the allegations and, following a summary of the findings, to terminate the coach’s employment. The report also confirmed that Canada Soccer acted in good faith and that there was no evidence of a cover up.”

The Guardian could not reach Montopoli for comment.

Fifa’s support for Montagliani and Montopoli comes as its chief women’s football officer Sarai Bareman told the Guardian that the organization has “a zero-tolerance policy around this type of stuff”. It also coincides with the release of the Yates report, which found widespread abuse in the US National Women’s Soccer League. Both Canada Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation are members of the Concacaf federation of which Montagliani is president.

Canada Soccer officials Peter Montopoli, left, and Victor Montagliani, right, stand with Patrice Bernier before a 2014 friendly between Canada and Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field.
Canada Soccer officials Peter Montopoli, left, and Victor Montagliani, right, stand with Patrice Bernier before a 2014 friendly between Canada and Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field. Photograph: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Commissioned by Canada Soccer in 2021 and released in July, the McLaren Report recommended Canada Soccer be “willing to understand and grasp the severity of the trauma that the 2008 U-20 WNT players experienced at the hands of Birarda” and that “Canada Soccer needs to commit to reconciling the past if it wants to move forward positively”.

However reconciliation seems unlikely with no accountability at the top, says women’s soccer pioneer Andrea Neil.

“This latest round of investigations is just more of the same because you’re not getting to the core of what this is about,” says Neil, who played 132 times for the Canadian national team from 1991 to 2007. “It doesn’t matter how robust your procedures, or your administrative guide is on paper. It was robust back then [in 2008] and they chose not to follow it.

“It ultimately comes down to how a person thinks, feels, and chooses to behave in a leadership role. A big part of this is understanding that each person is responsible, and therefore, accountable for their actions and how these actions impact other people. Real leadership is having the courage to stand up and say, ‘I erred, I dropped the ball, I understand now how I needed to choose differently and in what way, and I am really, really, sorry.’

“Responsibility, ownership, trust, support, empathy: these are all basic core elements of what ethical leadership is all about. If you’re asking what you must do in any situation, you’re not leading. You’re just managing a situation.”

Neil said Canada Soccer should apologize for how it handled allegations of abuse by Birarda but any apology had to be “genuinely, and appropriately, from the heart” not part of a public relations exercise.

“Regardless of how that might or might not expose them from a legal standpoint,” she said. “You can see the responses coming from them and how they are straight out of a guidebook on crisis management intended to repair their institutional reputation. They don’t seem to realize that without care, support, and empathy, what they are really doing is weakening their position and destroying their credibility. They failed to support and protect the people they had a duty to care for back then and they seem unwilling to accept accountability for it now.”

The consultancy organization recently hired by Canada Soccer to revamp its approach to athlete protection also called for accountability but said its own priority was to “look to the future”. Ilan Yampolsky, co-founder of ITP Sport, said accountability for any former Canada Soccer executives was dependent on whose jurisdiction they now fall under.

“If Canada Soccer has the jurisdiction to act upon the confirmed information from an investigator then they should do so,” Yampolsky said. “If there were still individuals in their organization that this report clearly indicated gross negligence and misconduct then, yes, they have to take action.”

Yamplosky said an important step forward in overhauling how organizations handle abuse is recognizing that many sports governing bodies are incapable of fixing systemic issues and need a total overhaul.

“I think there are many people that made bad decisions – or not the right decisions – because they didn’t have the knowledge,” Yamplosky said. “Obviously, if there were some individuals where you can find gross misconduct they should be fired but firing Ron and replacing Rob with Bob is not going to change anything. Should the director of the board be fired? We need to make sure there is a change in the system. Our job is to look into the future and see how it can improve.”

“If you have done something in the past and it is proven then, yes, you have to go. But we have to concentrate our resources on breaking the chain and educating new coaches, athletes, parents, about what is the right thing to do and how to act on it when it happens.”

Yamplosky co-leads ITP Sport with former Olympic skier Alison Forsyth – an abuse survivor who alleges she was sexually abused by Alpine Canada coach Bertrand Charest in the 1990s (in 2017, Charest was convicted of abusing nine of the girls he instructed). ITP Sport has been used by many Canadian sports organizations seeking to review management of abuse in sport. Forysth said that failure to educate athletes and coaches on what is acceptable behavior perpetuates cycles of abuse.

“It is important that we recognize a cultural legacy in sports where players who were abused do not recognize they were abused and they reperpetrate the abuse that they suffered when they become coaches,” Forsyth said. “We have to respect that education does work. There can be no personal favorites, there are no personal bonds, there is no driving 16-year old athletes around any more. Everyone needs to shift to a new behavior in sport.”

Canada Soccer declined a request from the Guardian for an interview with its general secretary, Earl Cochrane, who was appointed to succeed Montopoli in the role in July.

Neil said the door remains open for organizations like Fifa and Canada Soccer to demonstrate strong leadership and accountability but is pessimistic of meaningful change.

“Ultimately, I didn’t see any accountability back then, and I’m not seeing any now,” she said. “What I’ve observed is an organization trying to find the fastest way to make a problem go away. This is definitely an institutional pattern of behavior that I witnessed a lot during my career.

“Before they write new policies, they need to look at why their old policies were so easily ignored or why they chose to remain silent and allow a coach, who was accused of abusing his players, to move on to a new coaching environment. That sort of honest looking in the mirror isn’t easy but they owe an explanation to themselves, the Canadian soccer community, and most of all the people who were harmed throughout all of this.”