The 8- and 9-year-old girls from the Cumberland Cobras in Ottawa had been prepping for their soccer meet in Quebec for months. They practised three times a week, had their hotel rooms in Montreal booked, and even raised $950 selling raffle tickets and food in a fundraising barbecue last Saturday.
On Wednesday evening, the girls and their parents learned their long-anticipated trip this weekend was being cancelled – a casualty of a political feud between Quebec soccer officials and the national governing body that has spilled over from sports-executive boardrooms to children's soccer fields.
The Ontario Soccer Association withheld travel permits for 20 Ontario teams scheduled to play in a soccer tournament near Montreal, fallout from the Quebec Soccer Federation's decision to ban Sikh soccer players who wear turbans. The Ontario body was acting on orders from the Canadian Soccer Association, which suspended Quebec over the turban ban and said its teams could no longer compete in interprovincial tournaments.
While soccer-loving Sikh youngsters were the first to pay the price for grownups' decisions, now hundreds of other children inside and outside Quebec are affected.
"These kids don't understand what's happening. They're being punished and they can't play a sport they love," Eric Pilon, head coach of the girls' team, said from Ottawa on Thursday. He is critical of both sides in the dispute and said they have mishandled the issue. "Suspending a nine-year-old girls' team does nothing to get the situation resolved. The kids are being penalized for something that has nothing to do with them."
The withdrawal of the 20 Ontario teams from the Lac St-Louis Regional Soccer Association tournament is the most immediate effect of a suspension that is isolating Quebec soccer and could cause dozens of matches with non-Quebec teams to be cancelled. Even adult matches between teams in Ottawa and neighbouring Gatineau are affected.
Peter Montopoli, general secretary of the Canadian association, wrote to provincial associations on Wednesday saying he was imposing the suspension on Quebec "with tremendous disappointment," but that he was acting "to ensure soccer remains accessible to the largest number of Canadians."
Neither side is speaking publicly about the dispute. A spokeswoman for the national body said "there is ongoing conversation" between the two groups, and one source said the heads of the two bodies spoke to one another on Thursday.
For some parents, the loss of the weekend tournament in Quebec was regrettable but a legitimate price for standing up for the larger issue of inclusiveness.
"It is disappointing to see kids affected by a disagreement among adults," said James Mihaychuk, whose 11-year-old son, Blake, had been slated to play for his Ottawa team in the Montreal tournament. "But am I disappointed that someone stood up for fairness for all? No. To me, soccer belongs to the world … the [Canadian Soccer Association] is on the right side of the issue."
Organizers of the weekend tournament were scrambling on Thursday to find replacements for the 20 Ontario teams, part of an initial roster of 170 teams in competition. The Lac St-Louis Regional Soccer Association had issued a directive against turbans last year, leaving observant Sikh boys unable to play soccer while wearing their religious headgear.
In April, the Canadian Soccer Association urged provincial counterparts to allow turbans, but Quebec is the only province whose soccer body refused.