The roots of soccer’s ‘climate change’

His name was Anthony Keith Waiters and if ever a “soccer Brit” threw himself into his new country as he left his old one, it was Tony Waiters. He didn’t come to Canada to teach Canadians how to play the game, it just turned out the way. And while he lived the last 43 years of his life on the West Coast, his impact on the game was felt coast to coast.

Appropriately, his greatest coaching achievement was in Newfoundland, as far from his second-greatest (Vancouver) as you can be without leaving the country. On a cold, damp September day in St. John’s, he guided Canada into the 1986 World Cup against a group of talented Hondurans unaccustomed to playing in cold, damp weather. Unaccustomed as I was to watching soccer on cold, damp days, I did, witnessing what’s still Canada’s greatest day in soccer.

That “climate change” decision was made by Waiters. It’s a strategy employed this month, when Canada introduced Costa Rica and Mexico to November soccer in Edmonton. This Canadian team is all professionals, far more skilled than the one Waiters coached — scoring star George Pakos fixed water meters by day and returned after being released by Waiters to score two of Canada’s three goals against Honduras.

If the current team makes it to the 2022 World Cup, by holding onto its qualifying spot for six more games between now and March (think climactic assistance), there will be a tsunami of emotion sweep the country that will grow the game.

That’s what Tony Waiters was all about — growing the game. After coaching the Vancouver Whitecaps to their first (and only) professional championship, he moved on to coach Canada to its first (and only) World Cup appearance. He then became an even bigger “professional” coach, teaching thousands of young players across the country through instructional books, coaching seminars and innovations — the first to give girls’ soccer equal footing, the first to design techniques and instruction by age and first to introduce MicroSoccer practice and games (3-vs-3, for example) for the youngest players.

He’d demonstrated these visions before emigrating to Canada with an English Third Division team, Plymouth Argyle. In 2019, four decades after he left, Plymouth Argyle authored a 511-page coffee-table book on “The Waiters Era.” He had long believed that success at the top is the best way to create skills and passion for the soccer’s grassroots, and he would have been thrilled seeing Canada in next year’s World Cup — even though it will make him less relevant.

As his friend and book collaborator, I admit to being biased, but there can be no question about his impact on Canadian soccer. One small anecdote: A year after his death, our three-year-old granddaughter announced she wants to play soccer. Without Tony Waiters, she may have never had that option.